Koizumi’s clout wanes; LDP out of favor

by Mariko Yasumoto

Kyodo News

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi still ranks high in public opinion polls as the lawmaker most suitable as prime minister, but his political clout no longer appears to be what it once was.

Last month, Koizumi rebuked Prime Minister Taro Aso and walked out a House of Representatives session March 4 when the ruling bloc approved the cash handout plan.

Koizumi was apparently angry, as Aso made a series of comments against his structural reform pillar, the postal system privatization, while trying to push his own bill through the Diet using the Liberal Democratic Party seats obtained under the popular Koizumi in the 2005 election.

The move by Koizumi, who maintained high popularity rates throughout his 2001-2006 stint in office, was a seismic jolt to the LDP, which has already been frayed by conflict among its members over the contentious cash handout plan as well as other issues, including calls for an increase in the consumption tax.

But when push came to shove, nothing really happened. Other than Koizumi, only LDP colleague Jiro Ono abstained from voting.

The impact of Koizumi’s comments was less than expected and disappointed the opposition camp led by the Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ had high hopes that some LDP lawmakers would rebel against the cash benefit-related bill in tandem with Koizumi.

“It’s a sign that the edge of his knife has become dull,” said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo. If Koizumi had not declared that he intends to retire from politics, “the impact could have been somewhat greater, but not critical,” he added.

Koizumi, who has said he will exit politics when the next general election is called, “no longer has great influence,” according to Azuma Koshiishi, head of the DPJ’s House of Councilors caucus.

One Upper House member of the LDP said Koizumi has already been “stripped of his magical powers.”

Yet he still enjoys strong public popularity, as seen in a recent poll by a major daily. The poll showed he was deemed the most suitable to be prime minister, besting DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, not to mention Aso, who has seen his support rates plummet to single-digit levels.

Koizumi was popular because “he demonstrated great leadership skills and once he set a direction, he pressed on toward his goal,” Sone said, referring to the postal privatization and other structural reforms Koizumi spearheaded.

By saying he would “destroy the LDP,” Koizumi also helped unite the party, which was teetering under his unpopular predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, and raised public expectations that he could bring about a long-awaited change in the nation’s stagnant politics.

But Koizumi’s reforms are now regarded as a huge negative legacy for the LDP as they have deprived the party of its large traditional rural power base, said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.

The party was already divided over how to assess Koizumi-style reforms even when he was in office, but what was a “potential chasm” has become more visible, said Jun Iio, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

In a Kyodo News survey last year, more than 60 percent of respondents said they favored reviewing Koizumi’s postal privatization, and the figure came in at as high as 46 percent among LDP supporters.

The result signals public disappointment in his painful structural reforms, which are often blamed for the recent increase in massive layoffs of temp workers and the widening disparity between urban and rural areas.