Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his Cabinet continue to enjoy record-high public approval ratings, the real test for the new administration will come in the July House of Councilors election.

The Cabinet’s popularity is largely attributed to the personal appeal of Koizumi and Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, who have regularly topped media polls on who the public would like to see as prime minister.

The evidence is mounting, however, that Koizumi’s popularity has also garnered further support for the LDP.

According to the latest Kyodo News survey, Koizumi’s Cabinet claimed a whopping 85 percent approval rating, while support for the LDP also surged to 44 percent.

The latter constitutes a 16-point jump from the previous survey taken when Koizumi’s unpopular predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, was at the government’s helm.

Political analyst Kichiya Kobayashi predicts that the LDP-led ruling coalition will retain a majority in the Upper House, with the LDP boosting its strength but its coalition partners — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — possibly losing some seats.

According to the Kyodo survey, some 80 percent of those who support the Democratic Party of Japan, which usually attracts unaffiliated voters when public sentiment turns against the LDP, say they back the Koizumi Cabinet.

The DPJ is the largest opposition party.

“If both swing voters and the LDP’s traditional supporters linked to industry groups vote for the LDP, the coalition will certainly keep a majority in the Upper House,” Kobayashi said.

Seats up for grabs

Of the 252 seats in the Upper House, a joint parliamentary group comprising LDP and NCP members currently holds 113 seats, while New Komeito has 24 seats. This adds up to 137 seats for the ruling camp as a whole.

Half of the Upper House seats will be up for grabs in the triennial election. This time around, 121 seats will be contested, with the number of seats in the chamber being reduced by five to 247.

In the ruling camp, 63 members of the LDP-NCP group and 13 New Komeito members face re-election battles. The three parties need to win at least 63 seats between them to maintain their majority presence in the chamber.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on June 24 — the first major poll since Koizumi took office in April — is widely seen as a prelude to the Upper House poll and as an indicator of voter trends for the Diet race.

Koizumi’s enormous popularity has even triggered speculation that, should the LDP win a landslide victory in the Tokyo election, the prime minister may seize the opportunity to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap general election to be held simultaneously with the Upper House poll.

“The Tokyo assembly election . . . is a good opportunity (for Koizumi) to judge whether to hold a dual election (of both chambers of the Diet),” remarked a senior LDP member in the Upper House.

Simultaneous elections in the Diet’s two chambers have been held only twice in the past — in 1980 and 1986 — with landslide triumphs for the LDP registered on both occasions.

Political realignment

With the LDP reeling under Mori and the ruling camp widely viewed to be heading for disaster in the Upper House poll, there had been speculation that the July election could trigger another wave of political realignment.

But a senior LDP lawmaker predicts the coalition’s current framework will be maintained as long as the alliance maintains its Upper House majority.

Political commentator Harumi Arima believes, however, that political regrouping is inevitable at some point, although it will not take place immediately after the Upper House election.

“When Koizumi’s reform initiatives are hampered in the future by what he describes as the ‘resistance force’ (within the LDP), there are two alternatives for the prime minister,” Arima said.

One is for Koizumi to leave the LDP with his supporters and form a new party with DPJ members who share his policy goals, Arima said.

The other is to exercise his exclusive right to dissolve the Diet and hold a general election in the hope that voters reject his opponents, he said.

Although Koizumi claims enormous popular support, many of the LDP’s old guard — the party mainstream under Mori’s reign — quietly resent the wavy-haired reformist maverick.

This is particularly so following his triumph over their favorite son, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, in the party presidential election last month.

And although they continue to refrain from openly challenging the popular Koizumi, their discontent is already beginning to surface.

When Koizumi announced plans to diversify the use of special revenues earmarked exclusively for road-construction projects, some party elders voiced strong objections.

Critics say the special revenues have long been used by LDP lawmakers backed by the construction industry as a tool to facilitate pork barrel politics.

“His way of making decisions all by himself is self-righteous and fascist,” said Muneo Suzuki, a senior member of the LDP’s largest faction, led by Hashimoto.

In his appointment of top party executives last month, Koizumi snubbed the Hashimoto faction, which has dominated party affairs for much of the past decade.

Similarly, in choosing his Cabinet, he bypassed leaders of the party’s major factions, who traditionally maintain their influence by distributing party and Cabinet posts to their own ranks.

Political analyst Kobayashi said the Hashimoto faction and its allies will wait for Koizumi to err and his popularity to fall before making any moves to challenge his leadership.

“That is when they will be lashing out against Koizumi,” Kobayashi said, adding that his opponents would probably confront him when his current term as LDP chief expires in September.

The LDP is set to change its rules to extend the term served by its president from the current two years to three. Should Koizumi gain re-election in September, his next term will run through 2004. “If (Koizumi’s opponents in the LDP) fail to oust Koizumi and allow him to continue at the helm for the next three years, their factions may lose influence and gradually dissolve,” he said.

Trouble for opposition

Koizumi’s strong popularity signifies trouble for the opposition camp. The latest Kyodo News poll puts support for the DPJ at a meager 9.9 percent.

The DPJ, which increased its number of Lower House seats in the general election last June while the LDP floundered under Mori, was hoping the upcoming Upper House poll would further boost its strength.

But Koizumi’s reform agenda, which overlaps a great deal with the party’s structural reform proposals, has made it difficult for the DPJ to differentiate itself from the ruling coalition.

DPJ leaders are now beginning to make detailed proposals in relation to Koizumi’s reform policies, and are even encouraging him to carry out his plans in an effort to portray the DPJ as the “true reformist” party.

“Our party is leading the way toward structural reform, while LDP heavyweights are hampering Koizumi’s reform,” remarked Naoto Kan, secretary general of the DPJ.

Yet, voters are apparently not listening.

Kan received about 140 e-mails at DPJ headquarters on the same day that he questioned Koizumi’s policies during a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee. Most of the messages criticized Kan for “bullying” the prime minister.

Coalition worries

But the opposition camp is not the only one that has been hit by the advent of the popular Koizumi.

The LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, appears to feel it has been cast into the shade since Koizumi took office. In addition, many of Koizumi’s policy initiatives are unacceptable to New Komeito.

These include Koizumi’s plans to visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15 and to lift the ban on the nation’s right to engage in collective defense.

New Komeito has long maintained strong personal ties with members of what is now the Hashimoto faction.

In recent years, Hiromu Nonaka, a former LDP secretary general whose clout within the party has declined in the wake of Koizumi’s victory, has served as the LDP’s key link with New Komeito.

This has been especially true since the party entered the ruling coalition in 1999.

“New Komeito does not put complete trust in the Koizumi administration,” a senior member of the NCP observed. The same thing may be said of the LDP’s attitude toward New Komeito.

Many LDP lawmakers have been unhappy over its coalition with the party, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization.

Now that the LDP is enjoying higher support ratings, these LDP members have begun to suggest the party may no longer need New Komeito’s help.

While the LDP was debating its position on a bill to grant local-level suffrage to foreign residents — a bill that New Komeito is strongly pressuring the reluctant LDP to support — an LDP member told a party gathering, “New Komeito is asking too much from us. We should break up (the coalition partnership) if necessary.”

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