Commentary Magazine


Goodbye, Abe

Yesterday, the coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe lost its majority in the Upper House of the Diet, the national legislature. The LDP, with junior partner New Komeito, won 46 seats; its chief rival, the Democratic Party, won 60.

The Japanese sometimes complain that their country is not “normal.” Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary about Sunday’s landslide against the LDP, which has dominated Japan’s politics since 1955. Unlike Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, Abe presented a cold and diffident face to the average citizen. His central policy goals—improving relations with China and South Korea and bolstering the military capabilities of Japan—are critical tasks for any Japanese leader. But they were not high priorities for voters far more concerned about worrying economic trends.

The Japanese economy has done relatively well under Abe’s short tenure, with growth up and unemployment down. Yet Japan is facing the same problems seen in the West, especially widening income disparity. Most Japanese think that unchecked globalization is not beneficial for them. Abe, the youngest prime minister in post-war Japan, seemed indifferent to their plight. Instead of paying attention to bread-and-butter issues and dealing forcefully with scandals in his cabinet, he spoke abstractly of building a “beautiful Japan.” That’s largely why Japanese voters hammered Mr. Abe’s party yesterday.

Hidenao Nakagawa resigned as the secretary general of the LDP, taking public responsibility for what Abe called an “utter defeat.” It seems as though the prime minister will be the next high-level casualty of yesterday’s debacle. Abe thinks a mere reshuffling of his cabinet will satisfy the electorate, but others are demanding he step down, or call immediate lower-house elections.

The Bush administration will not want to see a staunch friend like Abe leave office. Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the victorious Democratic Party, would be far less accommodating to America. But there’s nothing that Washington can do to save the now-embattled Abe. All politics in Japan these days is domestic.