With the extended 190-day Diet session having closed Monday, lawmakers’ attention is shifting to the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election on Sept. 20, the new Cabinet that will immediately follow it and the expected House of Representatives poll in November.
In the absence of promising contenders, Junichiro Koizumi is widely expected to win re-election as LDP chief and thus retain the prime ministership. Due to recent changes in party rules, he would, if re-elected, have three more years in office after his current term expires Sept. 30.
Although discontent over his economic policies is widespread among the LDP’s major factions, they have yet to come up with someone who can match Koizumi’s high popular support so they can throw their hat into the ring when the party election campaign officially starts Sept. 8.
Shizuka Kamei, a former LDP policy chief and one of Koizumi’s most vocal opponents, has said he would run if no one else steps up.
But Kamei’s image as an old-style LDP politician bent on debt-financed public works spending to stimulate the economy does not sit well with the public. With the general election expected so soon after the LDP race, many junior LDP lawmakers are expected to vote for Koizumi.
Akihiko Kumashiro and Takao Fujii, both members of the LDP’s largest faction, led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, have also expressed their intention to run in the party poll.
Fujii, a former transport minister, is considered a more probable candidate than the unexperienced Kumashiro, but senior leaders of the faction have yet to decide if the group will field Fujii.
Trade minister Takeo Hiranuma and LDP policy chief Taro Aso, who are often referred to as potential successors to Koizumi, have already indicated they will not run.
Others rumored to be potential candidates, including former Foreign Ministers Masahiko Komura and Yohei Kono, and Mitsuo Horiuchi, chairman of the party’s Executive Council and a leader of a major faction, have kept mum.
“The biggest headache in the LDP is that there is no strong challenger to Koizumi,” said Jun Iio, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
“The names of some likely candidates have been floated, but they haven’t committed because they don’t have the confidence to beat Koizumi, who still enjoys high public support.”
According to a Kyodo News poll released Sunday, the approval rating for the Koizumi Cabinet stands at 47.6 percent, well below the 80 percent to 90 percent seen in the initial year of his administration but still higher than the ratings of many of his predecessors.
But Koizumi’s re-election is no sure bet, Iio said.
“Many LDP Diet members are frustrated with Koizumi, and something unexpected might happen if none of the candidates wins a majority and a runoff is held,” he said.
The 355 Diet members in the LDP each has a full vote, while other party members and supporters nationwide are allocated a combined 300 votes. The victor must win a majority of all the votes combined.
Koizumi, apparently confident of being re-elected, has declared that his policy pledges in the LDP presidential race will become the party platform in the general election.
“If I am re-elected, I will have the party follow my policies,” Koizumi said earlier this month. Citing such initiatives as privatizing postal services and public expressway operators, Koizumi challenged LDP members opposed to his policies to try to replace him in the party race.
If re-elected, Koizumi is expected to come up with a new Cabinet immediately. He has made no specific comments other than to say he will match the appropriate people with the appropriate posts. Party veterans are meanwhile calling for a radical change in the lineup.
Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who casts himself as a mentor to Koizumi, has publicly said all Cabinet ministers and top LDP executives should be replaced.
Mori also urged Koizumi to name veteran LDP politicians to key Cabinet posts, suggesting Koizumi take a reconciliatory stance toward those party lawmakers he has branded as a force of resistance.
Once the new Cabinet is installed, the ruling coalition hopes to open an extraordinary Diet session in late September.
The government must win passage of a bill to extend the mandate of the 2001 antiterrorism law by two years before it expires Nov. 1. The law allows the Self-Defense Forces to provide logistic support for the U.S. antiterrorism campaign in and around Afghanistan.
When that is done, Koizumi will be free to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election — a prospect that has already sent jitters through Nagata-cho, prompting the recent agreement in the opposition camp by the Democratic Party of Japan to absorb the smaller Liberal Party by the end of September.
According to Iio, this merger will have no small impact on the election.
Not only will an expanded DPJ have a chance to gain seats, but it will do so at the expense of the scandal-hit Social Democratic Party, Iio said, referring to the recent arrest of former SDP policy chief Kiyomi Tsujimoto for alleged fraud. “The SDP may not be able to field candidates in many constituencies, and some SDP members might even join the merged DPJ.”
Although it is unlikely that the DPJ could emerge from the general election with a majority of seats, and actually be able to take power, the merger at least sets politics in the direction of a two-party system, which could force the ruling party to actually effect changes, he said.
“The opposition parties had been fragmented and too weak, but they are finally coming together to challenge Koizumi’s policies,” Iio said. “The LDP can no longer afford to be embroiled in in-fighting between Koizumi and the anti-Koizumi camp.”
DPJ leader Naoto Kan said on the night of July 23 when he struck the merger deal: “It will be an election between the expanded DPJ and the LDP-led coalition to chose a government.”