Koizumi sets up familiar battle between reformers, old guard

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In reshuffling his party executives and Cabinet members, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pursued a familiar strategy Monday, pitting reform advocates against die-hard antireformers within the LDP.

Yet public support for these new appointments as well as success in pushing through his reform agendas are not assured, given the relative lack of political clout held by the new party executives.

Koizumi chose former farm minister Tsutomu Takebe, who has openly professed his zeal for the prime minister’s postal privatization plan, to serve as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, or the party’s No. 2 man.

Koizumi also retained two key policymakers in respect of postal reform, namely economic and fiscal policy minister Heizo Takenaka and internal affairs minister Taro Aso.

Takenaka was also appointed to serve concurrently as postal reform minister, which is a new position created specifically to implement Koizumi’s postal privatization plan.

“You can say the lineup has shifted toward privatization of the postal services,” New Komeito President Takenori Kanzaki told reporters.

Privatization of the postal services has long been opposed by many LDP figures who have threatened to block government-sponsored privatization bills scheduled to be submitted to the Diet next spring.

Koizumi has won support among voters by engaging in battles with politicians categorically labeled as antireformers, and has thus managed to suppress several rebellions within the party’s ranks.

Yet his new team faces a tough battle to achieve success.

For instance, Takebe’s ability to deal successfully in the realm of party politics is largely unproven.

By Japanese standards, the 63-year-old Takebe, who has been elected to the House of Representatives six times, is still considered young for the post, as well as something of a lightweight.

Takebe belongs to a minor intraparty faction led by Taku Yamasaki, and has occupied no key party or faction posts thus far.

Takebe “effectively has no backing from the faction he belongs to. I doubt he can perform his jobs,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of politics at Hokkaido University.

New LDP policy chief Kaoru Yosano is known for his thorough knowledge of policy matters. He belongs to no LDP faction, however, and his political clout is considered weak.

As for nonkey posts, unlike his previous Cabinet reshuffles, Koizumi appears to have given more consideration toward the balance of power between intraparty factions.

In previous Cabinet maneuvers, Koizumi has surprised the public by opting for young talent and appointing nonpoliticians, creating the impression his administration is different from those of the past, when seniority and the power balance among intraparty factions meant everything.

But there are no real surprises this time. Instead, Koizumi chose four LDP politicians whom faction leaders reportedly wanted in the lineup.

They are education minister Nariaki Nakayama, disaster prevention minister Yoshitaka Murata, Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono and industrial revitalization minister Seiichiro Murakami.

They have been all elected to the Diet five or six times — appropriate for becoming a minister under the LDP’s traditional seniority rule.

“The freshness of the image of Koizumi’s Cabinet has been rather weakened. I think he put more emphasis on balancing power between party factions,” said Yamaguchi of Hokkaido University.

He also questioned the appointment of Nobutaka Machimura as foreign minister, whom he said has rather tough, hawkish views toward China. Machimura belongs to the Mori faction, to which Koizumi belonged before becoming prime minister.

“I don’t think you can expect improvement in Japan-China relations,” said Yamaguchi, adding that he doesn’t think Koizumi gave much consideration toward policy matters in choosing Cabinet members.