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Speculation is mounting that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will call a general election this year, as old guard politicians continue to hamper his reform drive and leave him appearing increasingly forlorn.

Some lawmakers predict Koizumi will dissolve the 480-seat House of Representatives and call an election, possibly in the summer, in an effort to bolster his political clout and find a breakthrough in the battle against deflation.

Others say the feasibility of his structural reforms has been dented by weaker-than-expected economic data, including falling stocks and high unemployment, particularly in the second half of 2002.

Fading hopes for a quick resumption of bilateral talks with North Korea have only added to the bad news confronting the prime minister.

In the summer of 2001, shortly after his inauguration and with support rates topping 80 percent, Koizumi appeared authoritative and brimming with potential. But his image quickly changed as his reform effort fizzled.

In media polls in December, the prime minister’s support ratings plunged to around 50 percent.

“I’m well aware there is a group of people who want to unseat me soon,” Koizumi admitted in a yearend interview.

He also suggested he may dissolve the Lower House if he finds his political opponents are seriously blocking implementation of his structural reforms.

The 60-year-old leader has reportedly appeared listless during daily news briefings at his office, mumbling when asked to comment on topics such as fiscal and financial problems.

In a recent television program, one of Koizumi’s close aides all but predicted that the dissolution of the Lower House and a subsequent general election would occur around June.

Taku Yamasaki, secretary general of Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party, noted that Lower House members elected in June 2000 will have completed three-quarters of their four-year term by early summer, implying they may be keeping a nervous lookout for signs of an impending election.

“There is no logical reason (for an election at this time),” counters political commentator Ryoko Ozawa, adding that people outside political circles will find it difficult to understand why there is suddenly so much talk about it.

Several politicians and pundits have mentioned the possibility of a general election in 2003, but only because it is rare in postwar Japan for Lower House members to serve out their full four-year term, she said.

Only a prime minister can dissolve the Lower House, and the use of this power has long been a source of political interest and commentary in Japan.

Antireform LDP politicians are taking heart from Koizumi’s falling approval ratings and are calling for economic stimulus packages, saying his stalled reform policies have merely slowed a recovery of the economy.

Shizuka Kamei, one such LDP heavyweight, reportedly visited Koizumi at his office in early December and told him he should resign. Koizumi dismissed the idea.

If Koizumi gives up his structural reform drive “it means he loses his own raison d’etre,” said Yasunari Ueno, chief market economist at Mizuho Securities Co. “He has to keep on track.”

Said Ozawa, “Mr. Koizumi may possibly dissolve the Lower House, but only when he gives up his tenure and judges it better to let people choose a new leader.”

Many prime ministers have dissolved the Lower House with the aim of strengthening their administrations, but Koizumi will not follow suit, she said, “because he is a man who wants to behave differently from others.”

Even without a general election, there are a number of important polls scheduled for 2003, notably the more than 2,300 quadrennial elections to choose prefectural governors, mayors, and assembly members in local municipalities in April.

Mindful of how his approval rates jumped by double digits after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in September, Koizumi will visit Moscow in early January to discuss various issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including a bilateral territorial dispute and North Korea.

But if he fails to make major progress or win significant concessions on such high-profile issues, it may leave him with no trump cards to play. Some LDP members think that in such a scenario, Koizumi will turn to the electorate.

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