August 17, 2005


Koizumi: A modern-day samurai? (Hisane Masaki, 8/18/05, Asia Times)

When he roared into office in April 2001, Koizumi vowed to "destroy" the LDP if it refused to reform. On August 8, the time seemed to have finally come for him to follow through on his campaign pledge to "destroy" the party that has ruled Japan almost uninterrupted for 60 years since the end of World War II.

Koizumi's political gamble in calling a snap election is apparently aimed at transforming the LDP into a truly reformist party, even if it means a loss of power. His expulsion of rebellious LDP lawmakers by not endorsing them as official party candidates drew criticism from them as "Koizumi cleansing", "political crackdown on opponents" or "political genocide".

Some LDP politicians, including even those who support the bills, had believed that his threat to call a new vote was nothing more than a bluff aimed at discouraging LDP opponents from voting against the bills. But they were wrong. Koizumi showed no hesitance at all to call a new vote, even at the risk of losing power to the largest opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The lionesque-haired Koizumi apparently wanted to demonstrate that he truly deserves his nickname "Lionheart" and that he is not a "paper tiger" or a "toothless tiger". If he had reneged on his vow to call a snap election, he would probably have been reduced to a lame duck, more than a year before the expiration of his term as LDP president - and thereby as prime minister - in September next year.

When Koizumi dissolved the Lower House, many pundits said the prime minister's political fortune was doomed to death, with some even describing his decision as political suicide.

To be sure, the LDP's deep division has given the main opposition DPJ a windfall chance to oust the LDP from power. The day after the dissolution of the Lower House, the elated DPJ leader Katsuya Okada went so far as to declare that he would step down if his party failed to grab the opportunity to take power

. But as things now stand, the astute Koizumi seems to be gaining some ground in what was initially seen as a losing battle for the reins of government, making it even more difficult to predict the outcome of the vote.

Opinion polls suggest that Koizumi's gamble of turning on rebels within his own LDP is paying off. A majority of respondents approved of his decision to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election and his public approval rating has also risen sharply. The surveys by the Mainichi and Asahi dailies show that his cabinet approval rating rose nine points to 46% and five points to 45%, respectively.

The political drama scripted by Koizumi himself has received wide media coverage. In the drama, a spotlight has been put on the LDP leadership and rebellious LDP lawmakers engaged in the fierce internal feuding. As a result, the DPJ has been pushed to the backstage and left invisible to the audience. This has helped boost the LDP prospects in the election at the expense of the DPJ.

According to a survey taken by the Yomiuri newspaper immediately after the dissolution of the Lower House, public support for the DPJ was 18.3%, less than half the 40.1% for the LDP.

The DPJ is becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of public attention for the party. Former DPJ leader Naoto Kan frankly acknowledged on a TV program: "Internal fighting within the LDP is interesting. Regrettably, it has overshadowed the DPJ."

Koizumi has made it clear that the LDP will make postal privatization a major issue. "Although the diet concluded that postal privatization is not necessary, I would like to ask the public again: which will you choose - reformists or standpatters?" Koizumi asked shortly after calling the election.

The prime minister apparently wants to make postal privatization effectively the only election issue to keep his LDP on the offensive. He said on August 15 that the poll would be the first referendum on whether to privatize the country's postal savings system and reiterated his 2001 campaign pledge that he would "destroy the old LDP and create a new LDP" through the vote.

The LDP takes the DPJ and other opposition parties, as well as rebellious LDP lawmakers, to task for killing the postal bills in the diet. Koizumi apparently hopes to produce the evolving political drama as a battle between reformist forces, represented by the LDP and New Komeito, and anti-reformist ones, represented by the DPJ, other much smaller opposition parties and rebellious LDP lawmakers.

Koizumi has skillfully manipulated the political drama now on air to make voters sympathetic to him rather than to opposition lawmakers and the rebels within his own party. If it plays into the hands of the shrewd and tactful Koizumi, the DPJ might not be able to perform as strongly as expected, some analysts say.

A politician's best friend is an incompetent opposition.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2005 7:16 AM
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