Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s sky-high popularity is a thing of the past. Over the last six months, his public approval ratings have declined sharply, as has his image as a charismatic reformer.

But no other figure in the Liberal Democratic Party, which he heads, has emerged to challenge his reign and the only person with the popular clout to succeed him, according to opinion polls, is controversial Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. And Ishihara has yet to make a challenge.

Koizumi’s two-year term as LDP president runs through September 2003, but the party could seek to find a successor sooner, as has happened in the past.

Of the eight LDP presidents who served as prime ministers since 1989, only two held the nation’s helm for more than two years. There is already speculation that Koizumi’s hold on power could be jeopardized if the LDP fares poorly in Diet by-elections in late October.

“My administration is more stable than ever. I receive strong support from (the LDP). You should not fail to see that,” Koizumi told reporters when his approval rating hit a low of 38 percent in an Asahi Shimbun poll in May. Behind his words were some tough talk. His support rate finally regained the mid-40 percent range before the 192-day extended Diet session ended Wednesday.

A major factor underscoring Koizumi’s self-confidence is that he still appears to be the most popular LDP lawmaker, with no potential successor in the party anywhere on the horizon.

The situation is attributed to a variety of factors. The party’s major factions are ruled by the old guard and younger figures have either yet to come to the fore or have been caught up in scandals.

Koizumi and his two key allies, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato and current Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, were long considered new-generation LDP leaders, with Koizumi himself last year being the first in the “YKK trio” to take office.

But Kato, once considered a prime minister in waiting, was forced to leave the Lower House in April after his top secretary was arrested for tax evasion and he became the center of a political funds misappropriation scandal.

Yamasaki, though still holding the party’s No. 2 post, has seen his influence decline sharply since March, when his extramarital affairs were the stuff of magazine articles.

And in the LDP, seniority still counts when it comes to selecting leaders.

Koizumi and Yamasaki are in their 10th terms as Lower House members. Among LDP heavyweights, Shizuka Kamei, the outspoken former policy chief now in his eighth term, comes next on the list.

The prime ministership is probably out of the question for Kamei due to his shady image and numerous foes, observers said. His pork-barrel style of politics is also a handicap in a nation accustomed to Koizumi’s reform bent.

No viable younger heirs

After Kamei, the pecking order moves to four seventh-term lawmakers first elected to the Diet in 1979. The so-called 1979 Quad includes LDP policy chief Taro Aso, trade minister Takeo Hiranuma, former Secretary General Makoto Koga and former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.

Koga is considered a behind-the-scenes fixer, while Komura is too reserved to climb to the top of the political ladder.

Hiranuma is a member of the LDP’s third-largest faction, led by Kamei. Conventional Nagata-cho practice would dictate that Hiranuma must wait in line and let Kamei first take a stab at winning the LDP helm and thus the prime ministership.

This leaves Aso, who is said to have inherited his charisma — and arrogance — from his grandfather, the late Shigeru Yoshida. As prime minister he led the postwar reconstruction in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

But LDP members note that Aso’s public image cannot stand up to Koizumi’s, and thus if Aso were at the party’s helm during the next general election, which must be held by June 2004, the LDP would probably fare poorly.

In the April 2001 party presidential poll, Aso ended up a distant third behind Koizumi and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, after Kamei withdrew from the race.

Popular Makiko Tanaka, whose sacking as foreign minister in January by Koizumi triggered the drop in his public support rate, cannot be considered a contender after the LDP suspended her from the party for two years in June over allegations that she misappropriated the government salaries of her aides.

Fukashi Horie, president of Shobi Gakuen University, said the dearth of potential leaders is partially attributable to the decline in the power of the party’s factions.

When key faction leaders end their bids to become party president, they named successors to lead their groups. This process, for better or worse, served to groom future party leaders.

“The LDP’s traditional faction-oriented politics has gone nowhere in recent years, especially since Koizumi launched his reform drive,” Horie said. “The party’s major factions have lost their power along with their capacity to breed new leaders.”

Anticipating a post-Koizumi power vacuum, both the media and lawmakers are intently watching the highly popular Gov. Ishihara, who backed out of national politics seven years ago.

The 69-year-old award-winning writer, a Diet member for 25 years until he suddenly quit in 1995, is now the public’s most desired figure for prime minister, recent media polls show. A June survey by Kyodo News found that 27.5 percent of those polled deemed Ishihara the most appropriate person to lead the nation, followed by Koizumi at 19.5 percent and Tanaka at 8.3 percent.

Ishihara, whose four-year term as governor ends in April, has neither clearly denied nor confirmed that he may attempt to win the prime ministership by running in the next general election and possibly launching his own party.

“Nobody planning to launch a surprise attack would tip his hand” is his usual response to reporters when asked about his plans. Consequently, the speculation continues.

Etsuji Onuki, a former aide to Ishihara, predicted the governor will cautiously weigh his options, adding that his only goal — if he is to return to the Diet — would be to become prime minister.

Losing is not an option

“Ishihara’s philosophy is always to get to the top, and never to engage in a battle that he can possibly lose. He is unlikely to run (in the next general election) unless it becomes 99 percent certain that he will become prime minister,” Onuki said.

Nobuteru Ishihara, the governor’s eldest son and Koizumi’s minister for administrative reform, likened the continuing jitters in Nagata-cho over his father’s next move to “a ghost of the summer.”

“Such speculation surfaces whenever political turmoil is rumored. You hear it coming . . . it’s like a ghost tale,” he told a radio program earlier this year.

Yet, senior LDP members are nervous.

“It seems increasingly likely that Ishihara will launch a movement to prepare for the next general election,” a senior LDP member said on condition of anonymity.

“The atmosphere now looks similar to when he ran for Tokyo governor at the last minute, after flatly denying any intention to do so.”

Some pundits speculate that should Ishihara launch a new party before the next general election, as many as 100 Diet members may join him to ride the wave of his popularity — a strength that could give him power to negotiate an ascent to the prime ministership in an alliance with other parties.

Others, like Minoru Morita, are skeptical: “After making a great fuss about a new party, Ishihara would rather wait for the LDP to invite him to become president of the party.”

But Morita doubts this will happen. Many LDP members remember Ishihara as a maverick among their ranks and regard him as unpleasant. “So actually, many of them don’t want an Ishihara-controlled LDP,” he said.

Former Ishihara aide Onuki predicted the governor’s chances of actually becoming prime minister are slim.

Ishihara must decide by March whether to seek a second term as governor.

“If Koizumi can hang on until March and avoid being in a situation where he would be forced into calling a general election, Ishihara will run in the gubernatorial race in April, and his second term is a sure bet,” Onuki said.

“And once Ishihara’s second term begins, it will be virtually impossible for him to leave the governor’s job halfway through, because he would be publicly criticized for throwing away his job once again,” he said.

Ishihara would be 74 by the time a second term as governor would end.

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