Koizumi to exit political stage

by Reiji Yoshida and Kazuaki Nagata

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of the most popular and influential politicians in the nation, expressed his intention Thursday to retire from politics once his current term in the Lower House ends.

Koizumi’s retirement will have a profound impact on domestic politics. Many lawmakers had expected him to play an important role in realigning political parties after the Lower House election widely expected later this year.

In video footage aired by NHK, a grave-faced Koizumi, 66, nodded silently when reporters in his hometown of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, asked Thursday evening if he was going to retire from politics.

Koizumi’s second son, Shinjiro, 27, said he will run for a Lower House seat in his father’s constituency in the upcoming election. Koizumi represents the No. 11 district in Kanagawa, which covers Yokosuka.

“Koizumi must have thought his era was at an end,” said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of politics at Nihon University in Tokyo. “His son, Shinjiro, had already started visiting local supporters, so I thought (his retirement) was just a matter of time.”

“But I wasn’t sure if he would retire by the next election or not,” he said.

During his tenure from 2001 to 2006, Koizumi spearheaded structural reforms in the financial sector while adhering to an austere fiscal policy.

Koizumi also succeeded in privatizing the gigantic national postal service system by sweeping aside anyone within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party who stood in his way.

Since Koizumi stepped down in September 2006, many antiprivatization lawmakers have been allowed to rejoin the LDP.

Meanwhile, new Prime Minister Taro Aso, who was elected Wednesday, has called for fiscal spending to stimulate the economy, an apparent reversal of the austerity policy Koizumi successfully advocated despite opposition within his own party.

“Koizumi must have thought things were not going as well as he had hoped recently,” Iwai said.

Whether to continue with Koizumi’s tight fiscal policy was one of the key points of the policy debates before the LDP presidential election.

Although Koizumi supported ex-Defense Minister Yuriko Koike — even describing her as the successor to his reform policy — she came in a disappointing third among the five candidates in Monday’s vote.

“Koizumi created one era,” said Kenji Yamaoka, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, on Thursday. “(His retirement) is kind of surprising but it also seems like his own way.”

Nobuto Hosaka of the Social Democratic Party noted that Koizumi is generally regarded as a genius at gauging the political landscape. His decision must be an indication that the LDP’s dominance and his reforms are fading away, the lawmaker said.

Koizumi was elected prime minister in April 2001 and stepped down in September 2006.

He was popular with voters, who backed his efforts to streamline government entities and pressure the nation’s crippled banks to rid themselves of massive nonperforming loans.

However, as an outspoken nationalist, he greatly heightened diplomatic tensions with China and South Korea by repeatedly visiting war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Information from Kyodo News added