Foes waiting in wings for Koizumi

Straight-shooting prime minister to be thrown some curveballs

by Toshi Maeda

Ace pitcher Junichiro Koizumi does not throw curveballs. Two months into his tricky job on the nation’s political mound of Nagata-cho — where even supposed teammates may be plotting against him — he continues throwing straight fastballs only.

That is how Nobuteru Ishihara, state minister in charge of administrative reforms under Koizumi, describes how the prime minister bypasses the old ways of his Liberal Democratic Party to pursue his reform initiatives.

Koizumi completes his first round with the legislature today as the 150-day regular Diet session closes, and media surveys show he still claims an extraordinarily high level of public support.

With the LDP’s strong gains in Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, the party appears headed for smooth sailing toward the July 29 Upper House election — the first major national election during Koizumi’s reign.

However, Koizumi is not without foes. Within the LDP, opponents of his reform efforts — which range from a review of vested interest-shackled budget allocations to a reorganization of wasteful semigovernment corporations — are apparently waiting until the party survives the July election to openly speak up against the popular leader.

Experts also warn that with the economy predicted to go further downhill in the coming months, it will dawn on voters that Koizumi’s reforms entail pain, as promised.

But so far, at least, the nation appears still enchanted with Koizumi. The focus of interest in politics has shifted from the power games of parties in the Diet to the prime minister’s every move and word.

Thanks in part to the Koizumi phenomenon, the LDP and its coalition partners have had an unexpectedly smooth ride through Diet proceedings since the prime minister took office in late April.

During the 150-day Diet session, the LDP-led coalition ushered more than 90 percent of its planned bills through the legislature, with opposition parties almost powerless in the face of Koizumi’s enormous popularity.

Besides the silver-maned ace, other players in the Koizumi team have also become popular characters on TV.

A batch of camera crews and reporters follow outspoken Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka day in and day out. Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa, 79, whose inauguration in late April disappointed many in the financial markets due to his obvious lack of experience in financial matters, has ended up becoming an elderly idol with his new nickname “Shio-jii” (Grandpa Shio).

In the final week of the current Diet session, an internal LDP spat between Tanaka and Muneo Suzuki over personnel matters at the Foreign Ministry caused the ratification of three diplomatic treaties to be postponed until the next Diet session, which is expected to convene in autumn.

Still, public — and media — support for the Koizumi administration was apparently high enough to make up for the scuffle.

To some LDP elders who once boasted of their authority to effectively control the government, Koizumi’s performance is a mixed blessing. His popularity is welcome as the party prepares for the Upper House election, but only as long as it does not undermine their influence within the party.

Senior LDP figures complain that Koizumi’s decision-making style ignores the party’s established procedures. Some complain that he is a dictator and predict a battle between him and party elders in the fall.

Unlike his unpopular predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, who left the making of his government’s key policies in the hands of LDP heavyweights, Koizumi mostly makes his own decisions with the help of private advisers. Then, he simply “explains” his decisions to party bigwigs.

This does not sit well with the elders. As an example of the bitter sentiment, one former LDP policy chief said on condition of anonymity, “Let’s say Koizumi and Tanaka are fine, but I will not tolerate Takenaka,” referring to fiscal minister Heizo Takenaka, another popular Cabinet member who was teaching economics at Keio University before being handpicked by Koizumi.

He is now entrusted to set the course for the government’s economic management — a job once held by the privileged few within the LDP.

In addition to a potential revolt by disgruntled party elders after next month’s election, some observers say Koizumi will face other difficulties in keeping his promises of reform.

“Koizumi has declared which mountain he will climb, but it’s only after the election that he will start searching for the path to take,” said Akio Makabe, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Kangyo Research Institute.

Makabe noted that Koizumi’s bold pledge to cut the issuance of government bonds for fiscal 2002 by 3 trillion yen from an earlier Finance Ministry estimate still appears short on details and numerical targets.

Koizumi has claimed that the gap can be filled by diverting funds otherwise set aside for unnecessary public works projects, subsidies to extravagant semigovernmental firms and tax grants to local governments.

“And he will have to do it at a time when the economy is going downhill,” Makabe said, predicting the nation’s April-June gross domestic product growth data, to be released in September, would likely be worse than the 0.2 percent contraction in the January-March period.

Koizumi and his advisers admit that the public must share the pain of his reforms. For example, the final solution to the bad-loan woes of the banking sector, which Koizumi promises to complete within three years, is forecast to result in losses of up to 200,000 jobs.

When outlining the fiscal 2002 budget, to be drafted by the end of August, Koizumi is expected to come under fierce pressure from his LDP colleagues from rural constituencies, who oppose his initiative to shift more attention to urban residents.

Koizumi’s plans to diversify the use of the government’s special revenue reserved for road construction and to reduce tax grants from state coffers to local governments are widely expected to trigger an urban-rural collision.

His Cabinet members are trying hard to dispel such concerns.

“It will not be urban cities against rural towns,” Ishihara said on a recent TV program.

“What we are trying to do is simple: stop the government’s wasteful spending of taxpayer money. We don’t intend to forsake people in rural areas.”