Flagging in the polls and facing opposition within his own party, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will be aiming to strengthen his grip on power when he reshuffles his Cabinet on Monday.
Koizumi will announce his new ministerial lineup along with fresh appointments to key posts in the Liberal Democratic Party.
The prime minister may need a boost now more than ever.
Once favored by more than 80 percent of the electorate, Koizumi’s support ratings are now languishing at around half that. Recalcitrant lawmakers in the LDP are becoming more brazen about opposing his reforms, most recently coming out against privatization of the postal service — a centerpiece of his platform.
“He wants to tighten his grip on the party by collecting people who support his reforms,” said political analyst Minoru Morita. “But this will be a very difficult task.”
Koizumi is still hurting from his June decision to ram an unpopular bill through the Diet hiking mandatory pension premiums. Voters also looked down on his decision to extend the stay of noncombat troops in Iraq.
Voters displayed their disapproval in July when they showed strong support for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in a House of Councilors election. Koizumi’s LDP still rules the chamber through a coalition, but the opposition’s hand was strengthened.
In the past, Koizumi has made unexpected and unorthodox appointments to his Cabinet to boost his popularity.
He picked the wildly popular Makiko Tanaka, loved by voters for her blunt verbal attacks on the establishment, to be Japan’s first female foreign minister in 2001. Though this backfired when Tanaka quarreled with bureaucrats and Koizumi had to dismiss her after seven months, it briefly gave his government record support ratings.
Koizumi has also won the support of voters by defiantly bucking the LDP tradition of divvying up appointments based on lawmaker seniority and faction membership.
Flouting the wishes of LDP strongmen may prove harder this time because of his dimmed popularity, analysts say. But he could also risk losing even more voter support if he is seen catering to the demands of party cliques.
Critics add that the populist leader’s high-profile appointments have sometimes been more about show than substance.
“Koizumi is known for his ‘surprise appointments.’ But over the long term, they really haven’t delivered results,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor at Tokyo University.
“He may win a short-term popularity boost, but its debatable whether this will increase his ability to implement policies.”
Morita said whom Koizumi installs as finance minister and internal affairs minister will indicate how successful he will be at riding out the rest of his two-year term as president of the LDP.
Adept and powerful lawmakers will be needed for both posts amid efforts to control the huge debt and reform regional government finances.
Koizumi has already strongly hinted he will reappoint his economic and banking minister, Heizo Takenaka, to the Cabinet in some capacity. The media have speculated Takenaka will assume the newly created post of postal reform minister.
Who emerges as foreign minister will be watched as Koizumi tries to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and come clean about its past abductions of Japanese citizens. Koizumi wants to solve both problems so the countries can establish diplomatic relations during his term.
Critics allege current Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi lacks sufficient pull within the LDP to be effective even though the Yale University graduate is at ease in international circles.