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Japan's ruling party suffers electoral blow

The vote is seen as a midterm indictment of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who vows he'll remain in office.

July 30, 2007|Hisako Ueno and Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writers

TOKYO — Japanese voters delivered a stinging slap to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's nationalist obsessions Sunday, punishing his government for focusing on the grand ambition of a more assertive Japan while allowing the day-to-day management of the economy to descend into scandal and disarray.

The elections for half the seats in Japan's upper house, seen as a midterm referendum on the government's performance, gave Abe's governing Liberal Democratic Party one of its worst losses in the 52 years it has dominated Japanese politics. Several of Abe's most influential supporters crashed to defeat, throwing Abe's leadership into doubt and leaving the country poised for a rare era of two-party competition.

It also seemed destined to bury the sentimental nationalist rhetoric of turning Japan into a "beautiful country" that has animated Abe's time in office.

"The responsibility for this utter defeat rests with me," the prime minister said from his party headquarters as the extent of the damage became apparent.

But he refused to resign in the wake of the drubbing, rejecting historical precedents in which Japanese party leaders responded to lopsided defeats by ceding office.

"In this agonizing time, I believe it is my mission to carry out my responsibility," Abe said in a postelection interview on Japanese TV.

Abe later said he would reshuffle his Cabinet. "Voters said we must reflect on our shortcomings and refresh the lineup," he told reporters. "I plan to reshuffle the Cabinet and top party posts at an appropriate time."

The vote was almost universally interpreted as an expression of fury at the governing party, which, under Abe's leadership, has been tainted by scandal, verbal gaffes and perceived incompetence.

And the results are sure to arouse agitation in the LDP ranks for a new leader who can steady a party that has clearly lost public trust.

Voters stripped Abe of the cushy parliamentary majority he inherited 10 months ago from his popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and handed control of the upper house to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Led by Ichiro Ozawa, a 65-year-old political veteran whose reputation was built on being among the first to propose radical changes to Japan's economy, the DPJ portrayed Abe as an economic and managerial incompetent, distracted by constitutional issues and out of sync with everyday concerns.

That attack resonated with voters not only in cities, the DPJ's traditional area of strength, but in rural Japan, the onetime bastion of the LDP where many voters fear they are being excluded from the economic recovery of the last five years.

The first prime minister to be born after World War II, Abe succeeded Koizumi in September, pledging to throw off what he and his allies saw as the masochism of war guilt and allow Japan to take its place as an assertive international power.

Many observers had urged Abe to drop the nationalist rhetoric and focus on sharpening the economic reforms begun under Koizumi, which were aimed at ending the drag of Japan's sclerotic bureaucracy and readying the country's corporate sector for globalization.

But Abe's politics were nurtured in the LDP's nationalist wing, where success was measured by such issues as toughness on North Korea and a desire to redraft the narrative that blamed Japan for World War II.

In office, Abe swiftly moved to bring an end to what he called "the postwar era." He revised the country's basic Law on Education for the first time since 1947 by requiring schools to teach a more patriotic curriculum. He took the symbolic step of upgrading the defense agency to a full ministry.

And he passed a law establishing ground rules for a constitutional referendum, the first step toward revising the pacifist constitution imposed on Japan by the occupying Americans.

But while Abe was shepherding his nationalist program, the wheels were coming off his government.

Two Cabinet ministers and a top aide were forced to resign after being caught using public funds for private gain, reminders that the gremlins of LDP corruption that Koizumi had tried to expunge were still alive.

The situation darkened in May when Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, hanged himself after being caught pocketing money meant for his political office. Matsuoka was also implicated in a bid-rigging scandal.

His replacement, Norihiko Akagi, was almost immediately embroiled in similar accusations of misusing political funds. That scandal pursued the Abe government right up to Sunday's vote, with Akagi refusing to answer questions about the controversy and slipping out of the country in the days before the elections.

"There were so many scandals that Abe was called Mr. Weekly Scandal," said Hirotaka Futatsuki, a former tabloid editor. "Abe's problem was that he could not handle those scandals properly."

But the most devastating wound was the government's admission that it had lost about 50 million records of pension payments, leaving many people wondering whether they could afford retirement. Abe was never able to soothe the resulting alarm or convince the Japanese that his government had come to grips with the bureaucratic disaster.

"Abe talked about postwar regime issues with great enthusiasm, but these issues did not matter to people," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hokkaido University. "Then when he saw people's anger was raging ... he panicked and tried to take action. But that policymaking style without careful consideration itself created a loss of confidence."

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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Ueno reported from Tokyo and Japan bureau chief Wallace from Varanasi, India.

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