Commentary: Can Koizumi Pull Back from the Brink? (Int'l Edition)

By Irene M. Kunii

Has Junichiro Koizumi committed political hara-kiri? That's the verdict of many analysts in Tokyo. After nine months of sky-high polls, the tousle-haired Japanese Prime Minister has watched his popularity ratings plunge from 80% to some 50% in a matter of days. Koizumi triggered the slide when he fired his popular Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka.

It wasn't just the firing that ticked off Koizumi's supporters. Yes, many Japanese love the gutsy, outspoken Tanaka, one of the few politicians willing to openly fight corruption in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and foreign ministry. But they could have lived with her departure had Koizumi dismissed her for a valid reason--such as her consistently undiplomatic behavior toward Japan's foreign allies. Instead, Koizumi simply caved in to pressure from LDP elders. They were furious at Tanaka for daring to challenge Muneo Suzuki, an LDP pol who until now has wielded decisive influence over how Japan distributes some $11 billion in annual foreign aid. By bowing to the faction chiefs, Koizumi has demonstrated that he is either unwilling or unable to reform politics as usual. "People realize Koizumi never had any real power," says veteran political columnist Minoru Morita. "He's reached his limit."

Koizumi may still be able to reverse his popularity slide, but he will have to move decisively and battle the LDP elders, who remain opposed to painful economic restructuring. He should also introduce short-term economic measures, such as temporary tax cuts, to jump-start consumer demand. If he fails, his ratings may sink further, but at least he will have tried.

To restore his credibility, Koizumi also needs to try to pry loose the LDP's grip on government power. A way to achieve that would be to abolish the LDP "tribes," parliamentary panels that oversee government-regulated sectors such as construction, transportation, and agriculture, and who vet all related legislation presented to parliament.

Whatever happens, it's a real possibility that Koizumi's days are numbered. Former Premier Ryutaro Hashimoto, the powerful faction chief who plotted Tanaka's downfall, believes he can oust Koizumi. The buzz on Nagatacho Hill, Tokyo's political hub, is that several are eyeing Koizumi's job. In addition to Hashimoto and Shizuka Kamei, two strong power brokers, there's LDP policy chief Taro Aso, who claims to be a reformer though he opposes cuts in pork barrel public works.

The LDP old guard, meanwhile, is growing stronger by the day. The Diet will soon debate the privatization of four government-run transportation companies, including the notorious Japan Highway Public Corp., a gravy train for politicians linked to the construction industry. While Koizumi cut subsidies to the Highway Corp., the LDP's so-called road tribe is likely to ram through a plan to increase the number of highways by two thirds.

Koizumi could try one desperate act to prove his mettle: Call a snap election for the Lower House. It's an option that Koizumi said last year he would consider if the LDP factions blocked reform. The only problem is that, if he acted against the LDP, he'd find himself out of a job before the campaign even got under way. Gerald Curtis, a Columbia University expert in Japanese politics, rules out the possibility of any such gambit. "The most likely scenario is that Koizumi will stumble along and nothing will get done," he predicts. That, as we all know, is politics as usual in Japan.

Kunii writes about business and politics from Tokyo.

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