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Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

REQUIEM FOR A LOSER

Meltdown of a neocon: Abe's last hurrah


Special to The Japan Times

Japan's first premier born after World War II was an unmitigated disaster. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be remembered for the most precipitous and humiliating political meltdown in Japan's modern history.

Abe leaves his press conference in Tokyo on July 30, 2007, having rejected calls for his resignation the day after his party was hammered in Upper House elections
Abe leaves his press conference in Tokyo on July 30, 2007, having rejected calls for his resignation the day after his party was hammered in Upper House elections. AP PHOTO

By not stepping down in July after his ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost the Upper House elections — and control of that House for the first time ever — Abe, who has turned 53 since then, made himself the national punching bag. His was, however, a self-inflicted wound, as he could have exited in a timely fashion with a modicum of dignity. But Abe's political skills were never his strong suit; by obstinately and self-indulgently clinging to power until he announced his resignation on Sept. 12, he amplified voter discontent, provoked a media feeding frenzy and made himself into a walking liability for the LDP.

It was a pathetic way to go, only two days after opening the Diet with a policy speech, and what is striking in a country that normally shows some respect and sympathy for the mighty who stumble or fall, the media and his colleagues breathed a collective sigh of good riddance. Probably the most disappointed people in Japan were his political opponents, who viewed him as their most effective weapon.

When I announced his resignation to my undergraduate class that Wednesday, I was stunned that the class erupted in hoots and clapping; if only my lectures would elicit such enthusiasm. An unpopular man managed to turn his last hurrah into a fiasco that effectively finishes what might have been a significant political career.

Since July, Abe had been governing on borrowed time. For the LDP leadership, after the thrashing at the polls and loss of their Upper House majority, he had become heavy and unwanted baggage and his exit was a matter of time. He became the poster boy for all that ails the LDP. The second Cabinet selection process in August sidelined Abe and signaled that the "adults" were reclaiming the government for the good of the party. Dumping Abe is a way of clearing the decks, hitting the reset button and trying to regain the public confidence he squandered.

His belated ouster enables the party to turn the page on one of its biggest mistakes, entrusting the leadership to a man who demonstrated consistently that he was way out of his depth. Also, on the heels of numerous others among those he'd chosen for his administration, Abe's very own financial scandal erupted soon after his resignation, sparking speculation that he too fell victim to the same sort of improprieties that had dogged his Cabinet, causing the loss of five ministers in less than a year.

I keep reminding myself that one ought to feel some compassion for Abe, but I have managed to overcome my guilt about piling on by reminding myself that he was the architect of his own demise.

And there is a bonus. By going in such an unseemly way following a massive electoral setback, Abe indelibly tarnished his neoconservative agenda. He was a hardcore ideologue who forgot to take care of business — the bread-and-butter issues voters care about — and who, for this negligence, ended up undermining the causes he embraced.

Abe is easily the most ridiculed prime minister since the LDP became the dominant political force in Japan in 1955. Others may have their favorites for this dishonor, notably the gaffe-prone, buffoonish Yoshiro Mori (premier from 2000-2001), and then there was Sosuke Uno, a man hounded from office after only two months in power in 1989 by a geisha lampooning his tightwad ways. However, Abe must top the sad-sack charts because his travails were so widely savored by a public, and colleagues, eagerly tracking his incredible implosion.

It must be a record for any politician to sink from 80 percent approval in the public opinion polls to barely 20 percent in 10 months. Young people referred to him as "KY" (kuuki ga yomenai; literally, unable to read the air), a derisory reference to his cluelessness about public sentiments; while the media heaped scorn on his errant and often negligent leadership.

Abe tried to spin his resignation as a noble sacrifice, a gesture aimed at saving the anti-terror legislation required to keep Japanese forces in U.S. President George W. Bush's so-called Coalition of the Willing — legislation the opposition Democratic Party of Japan vows to block. Alas, nobody believes this effrontery, as his departure has not weakened the DPJ's resolve to use this issue to force early elections. The DPJ has tapped into a deep-seated pacifism among Japanese and their growing unease about cozier security ties with the United States. Battling Abe over renewing legislation allowing Japan to provide logistical support for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan was seen by the DPJ as a slam-dunk, since everything Abe touched turned sour.

Now, having Abe out of the way does increase the chances of turning the tables on the DPJ. Rather than making Abe the issue, the DPJ will face seasoned LDP veterans, much brighter than Abe, who will seek to portray the opposition as irresponsible. Does it make sense, they will ask, to throw the bilateral alliance with the U.S. into crisis in the dangerous neighborhood of East Asia? Playing on fears of China's military buildup and North Korea's missiles, the LDP can put the onus on the DPJ. Block Japan's logistical support if you dare, says the LDP, but stand ready to be accused of betraying the national interest to score cheap political points.

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