Japanese prime minister resists calls to resign

Posted in Japan | 31-Jul-07 | Author: Norimitsu Onishi| Source: International Herald Tribune

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe watches the progress of ballot counting on a monitor in front of names of candidates at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo, July 29, 2007 after an upper house election.

TOKYO: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resisted calls on Monday to resign after a devastating defeat in elections Sunday for the upper house of Parliament, insisting that Japanese voters still supported his policies.

Abe rejected the urging of opposition politicians, newspaper editorials and even members of his Liberal Democratic Party that he step down in keeping with a practice followed by past prime ministers.

He attributed his party's loss to public anger over scandals and a record-keeping problem related to national pensions, and not to a rejection of his administration's overall policies.

"I can't run away at this point," Abe said. "The situation will become very severe, but even in this kind of situation, we can't afford a political vacuum."

But in an indication of how the loss may force him to shift his priorities to survive, Abe spent most of a 30-minute news conference talking about the kind of economic and everyday issues close to voters' hearts.

He avoided mentioning North Korea, Japan's military, transforming Japan into "a beautiful country" and other leitmotifs of his nationalist agenda.

Tellingly, he never brought up the issue he has long upheld as the most important of his administration - the revision of the pacifist Constitution - until a reporter asked him about it toward the end of the news conference.

He said he wanted to engage voters in a "wide and deep discussion" about the Constitution.

Benefiting from the anger against Abe's party, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, seized control of the upper house for the first time and will be able to direct, delay and block legislation.

Yukio Hatoyama, the Democratic Party's secretary general, said voters had emphatically stated that they lacked confidence in Abe's administration.

"If the prime minister tries to stay despite the people's judgment, the Democratic Party will have to take some kind of action," Hatoyama said, indicating that the party would force a dissolution of the lower house and a general election.

Three of Japan's five national newspapers also wrote that Abe had lost his mandate. The Asahi Shimbun urged Abe to step down, reporting that 56 percent of respondents to exit polls said they wanted him to do so. The Nikkei and Mainichi said he should dissolve the lower house and call a general election.

Several heavyweight lawmakers in Abe's party were also quoted in newspapers as saying that he should quit.

"Prime Minister Abe should resign," Shigeru Ishiba, a former head of the Defense Ministry, said in an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun whose content was confirmed by his office. "Otherwise, the Liberal Democratic Party is finished."

In 1998, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned after winning only 44 of 126 seats in an upper house election. In 1989, Prime Minister Sousuke Uno stepped down after winning only 36 seats of 126, the lowest number ever recorded. On Sunday, Abe won only 37 of 121 seats.

At the news conference Monday, Abe ruled out dissolving the lower house, which selects prime ministers. But he said that he would make changes in his Cabinet, although he did not give a date.

A factor working in Abe's favor is that the Liberal Democrats have no obvious successor capable of leading the party to a general election, which has to be called by September 2009. The candidate mentioned most often, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, has a tendency to commit verbal gaffes, most recently when he made a joke at the expense of people with Alzheimer's disease.

Masaki Taniguchi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Policy, said it was unlikely that Abe would be forced to resign immediately.

"If it becomes clear that the Liberal Democratic Party can't compete in the next general election with Abe, a change of leader might become necessary," Taniguchi said.

To avoid becoming a lame duck, Abe will have to change his agenda in Parliament, Taniguchi said, adding, "If he insists on sticking to ideological issues, like revising the Constitution and education, the Parliament will degenerate into a stalemate and there might be a move to get rid of Abe."

But Abe retained the support of many Liberal Democrats, including those in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands and once a party stronghold. In this election, Abe's party lost all four seats up for grabs.

Masuki Motoki, the secretary general of the party's chapter in Kochi Prefecture, acknowledged that many people may feel that Abe is disregarding popular will by refusing to resign.

"Even though 37 seats is a number that should lead to a resignation, and he understands that, he made his intention clear," Motoki said. "The situation will become difficult, but I think he should do his utmost to move forward for the people and the country. And if he fails, then I think it'll lead to dissolving the lower house."

Japan's main opposition party said Monday that it opposed extending Japan's mission in support of the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, a day after it won a clear victory over Abe's governing coalition in upper house elections, The Associated Press reported from Tokyo.

The Japanese Navy has provided fuel for coalition warships in the Indian Ocean since November 2001 under a special anti-terrorism law, which has been extended four times, most recently on May 1.

The current mission is set to expire in November.

"We have always been fundamentally opposed to extending this law," said Hatoyama, the Democratic Party of Japan secretary general.

The Indian Ocean dispatch has been part of Tokyo's attempts to raise its international profile. It also sent noncombat troops to help rebuild southern Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion.

But the Democratic Party has criticized both operations, saying Japan's international efforts should be channeled through the United Nations, not the United States.