Much has been made of the massive defeat Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered in the recent election to Japan's Upper House. But, as the smoke dissipates from that vote, it has become clear that the real victor is neither the leading opposition Democratic Party (DPJ) nor the electorate. Instead, it is Japan's bureaucrats who are celebrating.
The aim of these entrenched mandarins is to block Abe's plans for extensive civil-service reforms intended to inhibit them from parachuting into lucrative post-retirement jobs in the public corporations and private firms that they once regulated. They also want to stop Abe from dismantling and privatizing one of their central fiefdoms, the Social Security Agency. In this struggle, the mandarins are aligning themselves with the DPJ, at least to the general public's eye, because it has proposed merging the Social Security Agency with the National Tax Agency, a move that would ensure government jobs for the former's employees.
The LDP's declining vote is attributable largely to Abe's mishandling of pension fund issues, particularly his late admission of knowledge last December about 50 million "lost" pension files. This followed other minor scandals concerning the misuse of political funds, which had led to two resignations and the suicide of one of Abe's Cabinet ministers.
But a close look reveals the hands of the mandarins behind these debacles. Abe and his ministers were simply not provided with critical facts by the bureaucrats who are supposed to serve them. Indeed, a DPJ member of the Diet was able to pose pointed questions to Abe and his ministers because he had obtained detailed information from an unidentified Social Security Agency official.
This constant stream of leaks from the bureaucrats has seriously shaken popular confidence in the Abe administration as well as the ruling LDP. The mandarins are now counting on an Upper House controlled by the DPJ to wreck Abe's civil-service reforms.
Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi handpicked Abe as his successor to continue his administration's central policies: divorcing the LDP from pork-barrel politics and consolidating the huge non-performing loans in the private sector that resulted from the collapse of Japan's property market bubble in the early 1990s. By revitalizing and modernizing Japan's financial system, and by getting politicians out of the game, Koizumi intended to reinvigorate the Japanese economy.
Koizumi had real successes in these reform efforts, which significantly transformed a malfunctioning Japanese state that was in the grip of pork-barrel LDP politicians, bureaucrats, and big business elites. Koizumi had relied on the bureaucrats to implement his reforms, but he did so at the price of postponing an overhaul of the civil service, which became a poisoned chalice that he passed on to Abe.
Moreover, Abe's lack of Koizumi's star quality and outsider charisma has made him rely more heavily than his predecessor on the LDP's existing leadership. These leaders are less concerned with the reform agenda than with promoting patriotism among Japanese youth, upgrading the Defense Agency to a ministry, and enacting a law to permit a referendum to revise the pacifist constitution. These are all important matters, but they are not among the electorate's priorities.