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     Sep 28, 2005
Koizumi on the home straight
By J Sean Curtin

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is looking more like an absolute monarch than simply a prime minister.

Prior to this month's Lower House election, Koizumi seemed very much as if he was about to be relegated to the history books. His prized postal reform package went down in flames with the help of some of his own party members. Then he called a snap election, which many described as political suicide.

It turns out he either beat the odds or is a brilliant politician who perfectly read the mood of the electorate. Either way his Liberal

Democrat Party (LDP)captured an overwhelming victory over its Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rivals, capturing 296 of 480 seats.

Having crushed the DPJ at the polls and eradicated, humiliated or silenced his LDP rivals, the 63-year-old Koizumi has in the process greatly increased the number of lawmakers who owe alliance to him. He also increased the female presence in parliament, with a record high 43 women elected.

Koizumi swept to power in April 2001. Some predicted his cabinet would last six months, yet today he is on his way to being one of Japan's longest-serving prime ministers (only five of Japan's 27 post-World War II leaders have survived for three years or longer).

And yet, after parliament reelected him prime minister last week, Koizumi reaffirmed his commitment to step down from office in September 2006 when his term as LDP party president expires.

Ryoji Yamauchi, President of Asahikawa University and a political commentator said: "I believe he will step down next September, just as he has said. While such an action appears to fly in the face of political logic, it perfectly fits in with Koizumi's personal style."

Most political analysts struggle to explain why Koizumi is so keen to abdicate after winning such a stunning victory that greatly enhanced his authority. Yamauchi has a theory: "Koizumi wants to go out when he is at his peak and basking in glory - that way he can avoid dealing with the chronic problems plaguing Japan like the pensions crisis, the social welfare nightmare and our battered relations with China and Korea, a problem directly caused by Koizumi's insensitive brand of nationalism."

Still, Japanese politics being what they are and Koizumi being unpredictable at times, it is possible he may go beyond next September. Regardless, the prime minister has a full plate and he is wasting no time getting down to work.

He delivered his first policy speech to the new Japanese parliament on Monday, stating his determination to rapidly enact postal privatization legislation (Given Koizumi's new absolute monarch-like status, his fixation with postal reform seem strange, unless his policy outline genuinely is the last crusade of a leader who plans to relinquish his crown next year).

After achieving a landslide election victory that gave him a strong mandate for reform, the scope of his first policy address was unexpectedly limited and extremely short. Apart from the specifics of postal reform, there was an absence of any other detailed policy initiative and silence on the key issues of the pension and social welfare reform. The decision not to produce a comprehensive long-term agenda appears to confirm Koizumi's pledge to leave office in September 2006, a date that will now increasingly begin to dominate the political landscape.

Since Koizumi's LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito, now control more than two thirds of the seats in the powerful Lower House, the postal bills are certain to be passed in the current special session, which ends on November 1. Japan Post will be divided into four units by October 2007 with its postal savings and life insurance arms fully privatized within about 10 years.

Postal privatization is a decades-long ambition of Koizumi's and it was LDP resistance to it that led him to the snap election. Stressing his poll triumph, the prime minister told parliament, "I respect the voice of the people and take it upon myself to realize postal privatization."

Koizumi concluded his address with a firm commitment: "I will do my best to perform my duty as prime minister, devoting myself in line with the public's cooperation without fearing pain [from reform], without hesitating to challenge the walls of vested interests and without being bound by past practice."

The leader of the main opposition DPJ, Seiji Maehara, complained, "Apart from the postal reform plan, the speech was totally lacking in substance."

Commentator Yamauchi said, "In his address to parliament, Koizumi didn't even bother to mention the critical problems facing the country because he clearly intends to leave the mess for someone else to fix."

Still, Koizumi did touch on some domestic issues such as reforming state-run financial institutions, reducing the number of government employees and implementing measures for asbestos-related deaths and ailments, but he failed to provide any concrete plans for accomplishing these objectives.

He was equally vague and detail-dodging about international affairs. He briefly mentioned UN Security Council expansion, improving relations with China and South Korea and continuing Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) refueling assistance to US forces in Afghanistan, as well as normalizing ties with North Korea.

He hinted at extending Japan's SDF troop deployment in Iraq beyond its December mission deadline. Koizumi said he would take into consideration "the local situation, requests of the Iraqi people and the international situation."

Meanwhile, the debate over Koizumi's future will likely continue until next September.

And political analysts will likely remain divided over Koizumi's real intentions. Kevin Cooney, a professor of political science at Jackson, Tennessee's Union University who specializes in Japan, commented: "For all practical purposes, Koizumi can stay as long as he likes as prime minister and I think he will. I could see him staying on for up to five years or until the next Lower House election. The LDP likes a winner and Koizumi is a winner."

He added, "Koizumi will play coy for awhile about staying on and he will make it seem as if he was begged to stay on by others."

Michael Penn, a lecturer in the Faculty of Law's Department of Policy Studies at Japan's Kitakyushu University takes a contrary view: "Koizumi indicated clearly that he intends to step down next year. I have no reason to doubt his word. For better or worse, he tends to do what he says he is going to do."

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan and author of Japan's Quiet Transformation, provides a synthesis: "I believe Koizumi when he reaffirmed his intention to stand down next September and also believe he will change his mind. There have already been calls for him to extend his term, not only to take care of the unfinished business on his reform agenda but also to lead the LDP into the Upper House elections in July 2007."

Koizumi is not the only major world leader planning to disappear after an election win. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who despite an impressive domestic record has drawn heavy criticism for his decision to invade Iraq with US forces, is also preparing to step down within a year or so. Like Koizumi, Blair has said will not lead his party into another election. Blair's finance minister, Gordon Brown, is increasingly being treated as if he were the prime minister-elect.

Kingston wonders whether either Blair or Koizumi will actually preside over the smooth coronation of an anointed successor. He commented, "The art of the exit is difficult; usually politicians can't resist riding the wave until it sends them crashing into the surf."

J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

Female 'ninjas' steal Koizumi's limelight (Sep 23, '05)

Koizumi holds all the cards (Sep 13, '05)

Koizumi: Crazy like a fox (Aug 12, '05)

Koizumi commits political suicide (Aug  9, '05)


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