Commentary: Why Koizumi Is Still Riding High

By Brian Bremner

Voters adored him back in 2001, and why not? When Junichiro Koizumi, a fiery populist with really cool hair, rose to Japan's premiership, he vowed to take a wrecking ball to the country's corrupt and clubby politics. He would slash and burn every special interest, every government subsidy, every white elephant project that held back Japan's economy. And if the ultraconservatives who headed his Liberal Democratic Party dared to stand in his way, he pledged, he would take them down, too.

Two years later, Koizumi hasn't delivered on much of anything. The Nikkei stock index is off 45% on his watch, a ruinous deflation is settling in, and the Prime Minister last month signed off on a $17 billion government bailout of banking group Resona Holdings Inc. So much for his promises to slash, burn, and deliver tough-love reform.

Given that record, you'd think Koizumi would be toast. But you'd be wrong. His approval rating is still clocking in at about 50%. Sure, that's down from 80% when he first took office, but Koizumi is expected to breeze through a race for the presidency of the LDP in September, which means he'll keep his post as Prime Minister. And Japan's opposition parties are so lame that the LDP stands a good chance of maintaining its ruling coalition in the next general election in mid-2004.

Why aren't Japan's voters searching for a stronger leader? They might be -- if they could find one. Ineffectual as he is, Koizumi still appeals to those who want wholesale reform because they believe he cares most and that there is no alternative. "People generally understand that Japan's political system is so well-entrenched that you won't be able to change it overnight," says Akio Mikuni, co-author of Japan's Policy Trap, a book about the country's financial crisis.

That's a sad way to run a country. Koizumi could do a lot more if he were really serious about getting something done. He could call a general election and force the hand of those who continue to block change. Then he could try to assemble a pro-reform coalition government consisting of his supporters inside the LDP along with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Stop smirking. There's some cooperation going on already. By negotiating directly with opposition parties, Koizumi in mid-May pushed legislation through the Diet that gave Japanese military forces more freedom to respond to attacks and play a peacekeeping role. Democratic Party leader Naoto Kan says he is open to working with Koizumi on economic reforms, too. And two years ago, the Democrats publicly urged Koizumi to bolt from the LDP and team up. Sure, this would be a huge risk for Koizumi, but it wouldn't be impossible.

Koizumi could likely count on Japan's big bloc of swing voters unaffiliated with either the LDP or opposition parties. They're mostly sophisticated urban types and represent half of all registered voters. They like Koizumi because he has done a great job of enhancing Japan's international prestige. He cuts a striking figure at foreign summits, and a grateful President George W. Bush practically gave him a bear hug at the Group of Eight Summit in Evian, France, thanks to his support in the war on terror. And even after Koizumi's two do-nothing years in office, many voters see him as a brilliant maverick hamstrung by anti-reformist factions in the LDP.

The swing voters who like Koizumi, though, don't necessarily like his party. So the LDP needs Koizumi more than he needs the LDP. "People don't see the bad economy as economic malpractice on his part," says Keio University political scientist Yasunori Sone. Maybe so, but if Koizumi chooses to cohabit with a largely anti-reform LDP, it sure seems like political negligence.

Even if there's no alternative to Koizumi, there is an alternative to the Koizumi who talks reform and doesn't deliver. It comes down to what sort of legacy Koizumi wants to leave. Will he be remembered as the guy who cynically talked the reform game to gain votes, without really intending to act on it? Or as the Prime Minister who risked everything to push Japan back onto the path of prosperity? So far, Japanese voters have apparently been willing to settle for the former. They deserve the latter -- and Koizumi should do his best to deliver it to them.

Tokyo bureau chief Bremner has been following Japanese politics since 1993.

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