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Japan's Bush

Prime Minister Abe rose to power as a conservative, but he's beset by scandal and low popularity.

July 31, 2007

When next they meet, President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have much to commiserate about.

Like Bush, the wildly unpopular Abe has just suffered a drubbing in midterm elections at the hands of the opposition Democratic Party (of Japan), which capitalized on the scandals that have wracked Abe's 10-month-old government.

Bush has had storms over the Katrina, Abramoff and Libby scandals. Abe is underwater over Japan's pension scandal. It's not only that bungling bureaucrats managed to lose 50 million records of payments made by citizens into their pension system. That epic computer glitch occurred years before he took office. But Abe, who already had a reputation for arrogance, went before parliament and denounced the opposition for carping over a minor computer problem that was well under control. Subsequent disclosures indicate that the pension goof is so massive that it may take years of forensic accounting to fix. Yet Abe has refused to admit any error. Sound familiar?

In foreign affairs too, Bush and Abe are having similar problems. Bush came to office opposing nation-building and has floundered trying to rebuild Iraq, while Abe came to office pledging to improve relations with China and South Korea but has alienated both with intemperate remarks about Japan's World War II-era sex slaves. As part of his conservative agenda, Abe also has been pushing a revision of Japan's no-war constitution and a broader global security role for the military. But the public hasn't shared his enthusiasm for these goals. It's odd that Abe, like Bush, became a successful politician by selling a new brand of smart conservatism, only to become politically tone-deaf.

The opposition and the Japanese media are now calling on Abe to take responsibility for the electoral defeat and resign. But the defiant Abe has refused, saying that would leave a power vacuum. It is true that no one in his party has stepped up to challenge him. So as of press time, Abe was still clinging to his premiership by his fingernails.

He should let go. His short term in office has been a failure. His party should at last listen to the voters and find a more credible replacement.

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