A rapid descent from grace

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 26/07/07):

Shinzo Abe‘s rapid fall from grace reflects a modern democratic phenomenon – the accelerating pace at which initially enthusiastic voters become impatient and disillusioned with new leaders. Angela Merkel in Germany is following a similar if less dramatic trajectory. Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy may travel the same road. Tony Blair had six years before things really began to go pear-shaped. Japan’s prime minister had little more than six months.

Mr Abe’s public approval ratings plunged from nearly 70% last September, when he was appointed by the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP), to 40% in February. Now he is down to 30% or less, about the same as the historically unpopular George Bush.

Supporters are arguing he will ignore precedent and soldier on, even if the LDP loses its majority in the upper house of parliament on Sunday. But according to a Yomiuri newspaper poll, in such circumstances 48% of voters believe he should stand down.

“He is not obliged to resign even if the result is very bad [because the LDP still controls the lower house]. But whatever happens, I think his authority will be reduced,” said a senior official. Japan risked returning to the pre-Koizumi era of weak leaders unable to control the political agenda or effect reforms, he said.

The reasons for Mr Abe’s difficulties so early in his premiership are not as obvious as might at first appear. Nor will the underlying structural disconnections in Japanese political life suddenly be repaired by his ritual defenestration, if that is indeed what happens.

At one level, the mere fact that the cool, detached – and popularly unelected – Mr Abe is not Junichiro Koizumi, his flamboyant and charismatic predecessor, is often given as a reason for public disenchantment. There is even speculation that Mr Koizumi could be redrafted. Internal opposition to the relatively young, inexperienced Mr Abe among LDP elders is said to have further undermined him.

The standard charge sheet against the prime minister also includes the recent public furore over a bureaucratic pensions snafu and uncertainty about higher taxes and rising national debt. But overall, the economy, ever a primary election issue, is doing consistently better than for many years, analysts say.

Liberals may attribute Mr Abe’s woes to his hawkish neo-nationalism, which stresses patriotism at home and self-assertion in international affairs – and which led him, at one particularly tense moment last year, to threaten a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea.

But once in office, Mr Abe has proven more pragmatist than ideologue. He patched up the Koizumi era rift with China. His firm stance has helped bring Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table. And his gradualist aim of amending Japan’s pacifist constitution, rendering Japan a “normal country” that is an equal security partner with the US, and winning UN security council membership enjoys growing support in a changing political landscape.

When Mr Abe appeared to deny the Japanese army was responsible for “comfort women” sex slavery during the second world war, there was uproar abroad, especially in China and South Korea. But like controversial visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead – which Mr Abe has eschewed but not renounced – his statement caused few ripples at home.

Far more fundamental to Mr Abe’s problems, and those facing any successor, is the growing disconnection between Japan’s political system and the people it is supposed to represent. Sunday’s polls notwithstanding, the LDP has enjoyed almost unbroken power for more than 50 years. The pretence of a healthy multi-party system grows ever harder to maintain.

Political scandals and corruption cases, continuing under Mr Abe, have increased public alienation. Turnout this weekend will likely be little above 50%. Only a third of voters under 30 will participate. Women, still facing institutionalised discrimination in public life, were further offended by a minister’s recent description of them as under-performing “breeding machines”.

And then there is the widespread conviction that the sclerotic government machine, whoever leads it, is incapable of tackling the real challenges facing Japan – principally, the declining national prosperity expected to result from an ageing population, a shrinking workforce, the ongoing failure to overhaul inefficient industries such as agriculture, and continuing over-regulation and protectionism.

Mr Abe, assuming he survives Sunday’s vote, is expected to purge his cabinet and try to relaunch his premiership. But his personal and political clout will be diminished. His enemies will be emboldened. And as Mr Blair and others can testify, once an electorate has made up its mind about a leader, it is notoriously hard to shift.