Koizumi’s Iraq Policy Faces Test in Elections

TOKYO – Mariko Ishibashi, 26, a company receptionist, has already decided she will not cast her ballot next month in an election that could crucially determine Japan’s deployment of troops to join a multinational force in Iraq.

“I am fed-up with Japanese politics,” Ishibashi, who holds a degree in American literature, tells IPS.

Candidates in Japan’s election for parliament’s upper house started their campaigns Thursday for the polls on July 11.

“What’s the point in voting when politicians do nothing to change Japan?” asks Ishibashi.

But the company receptionist is not alone. Yoshio Hattori, who works as a bartender in a prestigious hotel in downtown Tokyo, echoes similar sentiments.

“Sundays are my days off and I usually make plans to leave the city. Voting is not a priority for me,” he shrugs.

Voters in the July polls will choose 121 lawmakers, half of the planned total in the upper house. Half of the 242 seats in the House of Councilors, the less-powerful of the two chambers in parliament, come up for election every three years for a six-year term.

Analysts point out that while an uninterested electorate is nothing unusual in Japanese politics, the upcoming upper house parliamentary elections, however, represent a landmark contest for Japan.

“The voter turnout plays a key role to the results in the elections,” says Prof. Jun Lio, a political analyst at the National Graduate Policy Institute.

“A low percentage of people voting is definitely going to be advantageous to the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party,” he tells IPS.

But stressed Lio, it will be impossible for the opposition to make much headway in the upper house election if young people without party affiliations do not go to the polls.

The two main issues in the July 11 elections are Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to send Japanese troops to Iraq and the government’s plans to raise workers’ pension payments while slashing benefits.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) currently has 50 of the 121 seats up for grabs in the upper house and retains a controlling stake through a coalition with the New Komeito Party.

Recent opinion polls conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper show public support for Koizumi’s cabinet has fallen to around 40 percent from 54 percent last month – with voters uneasy about pension reforms and a commitment to leave troops in Iraq under a multinational force after the June 30 transfer of power to the Iraqis.

The Tokyo Shimbun, another leading daily, indicated in its opinion polls that support for the opposition has grown over the past week to almost match the government, with its survey showing disapproval for Koizumi at 42 percent.

Katsuya Okada, leader of Japan’s biggest opposition party, said he will challenge Koizumi’s support of U.S. policy in Iraq in a bid to defeat the government in next month’s election.

“Koizumi’s focus on the U.S.-Japan alliance has damaged Japan’s efforts to build ties in the Middle East such as with Iran,” Okada, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), told foreign reporters.

“Relations with neighboring countries including China and South Korea have also suffered,” he said.

“Koizumi offered to provide troops for a United Nations force in Iraq without even debating the issue at home,” Okada said. The DPJ says it wants to bring the Japanese contingent home.

Koizumi on June 10 said Japanese troops would join a United Nations-led multinational force in Iraq as long as their role is limited to humanitarian missions. He made the commitment at the end of the annual two-day gathering of leaders from the Group of Eight countries in the U.S. state of Georgia.

The United States failed to win a commitment from France, Germany and other G-8 members during the meeting for troops to serve in the international force in Iraq after the UN Security Council endorsed U.S. and British plans to hand power to an Iraqi government on June 30.

The July 11 upper house elections are seen as a referendum on Koizumi’s three-year record in office.

Although Koizumi’s ruling bloc cannot be ousted whatever the result of the election, the outcome could decide how much power he has in his remaining two and a half years in office.

Prof. Takeshi Inoguchi, who teaches international relations at Tokyo University, says the July elections represent a period of “intense anxiety” in Japan.

“Anxiety is the theme of the election. People are anxious about Japan’s future, anxious about how Japan will react to the crisis in Iraq, anxious about the eroding stability around them,” he tells IPS. “And Koizumi has fueled it.”

Analysts point out that an LDP victory could usher in a revision of Article 9 of Japan’s constitution that prohibits Japanese troops from engaging in the act of combat unless the nation is under attack.

“If LDP wins we might see a strengthening of current Koizumi policies that advocate changing the peace clause in the current constitution for a more assertive role for the Self-Defense Forces based on closer ties with the United States,” says Prof. Tetsuro Kato, at Hitotsubashi University.

After July, Japan is not scheduled to have new elections till Koizumi’s term as prime minister ends. This worries many who feel during that time the country could revert to its post-World War II stance and adopt an ultra-nationalist outlook of the world.

“The biggest issue for Japan is the decision to send troops to Iraq,” Hideo Shimizu, a constitution expert, told IPS.

“Japan faces the slippery road of loosing its highly valued pacifism. To keep following American aggressive policies is only going to pull Japan down,” he says alarmingly.

But more than 70 percent of those expected to run for election to the House of Councilors said they would concentrate on the review of the public pension system as a key issue for the campaign, according to a recent survey by The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

However, there is mounting public distrust in pension reform as several lawmakers themselves have not paid pension premiums for certain periods of time.

Japan’s population of 127 million will start declining two years from now, with the retired forecast to grow 40 percent to 34 million by 2018, the government estimates. Under the system, employee contributions pay for the pensions of current retirees, increasing the burden on the workforce as the population ages.