When he became prime minister in April 2001, Junichiro Koizumi boasted high public support, portraying himself as a lone wolf fighting old-guard politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party.

“Anti-Koizumi factions are trying to come up with candidates, but they can’t even decide on a single one,” Koizumi said last week, referring to moves by rival forces in the LDP to field someone to run against him in the party’s presidential election on Sept. 20.

Confident of re-election, he said the major goals he plans to pitch in the LDP poll will be privatization of the postal services and public expressway companies — bastions of old-guard politicians’ vested interests.

Some 20,000 post offices nationwide, whose heads are LDP supporters, have served as the party’s biggest vote-generating machine.

Hiromu Nonaka, a key member of the LDP’s largest faction, led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, wields strong influence over postal interest groups.

“The privatization of postal services has been a taboo in the LDP, and the people in the Hashimoto faction are against it,” Koizumi said, clearly with Nonaka in mind. “But if they don’t want me, they should try to elect someone else as prime minister.”

Koizumi still strikes a confrontational pose after 2 1/2 years in office, despite a declining support rate — from over 80 percent at the outset to around 50 percent now, a drop precipitated in large part by his sacking last year of the highly popular Makiko Tanaka as foreign minister.

The prime minister has to be confrontational “because he needs to keep the drama going to keep the public’s attention,” said Norihiko Narita, professor of political science at Surugadai University.

“Koizumi is peculiar in that he tries to bypass the party’s decision-making apparatus and directly appeal to the public,” said Narita, who was a secretary to former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa.

“Even if his support rate drops to 50 percent, that’s still high by Japanese political standards. Koizumi has a weak standing in the party, so the public support is his lifeline,” Narita said.

Koizumi’s provocative posture is based in large part on his opposition to the Hashimoto faction and its pork-barrel nature, he added.

Koizumi began his political career as a secretary to the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda in 1970. After winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972, Koizumi was tutored in the trade by Fukuda, whom he looked up to.

Fukuda, a former elite Finance Ministry bureaucrat and an advocate of a balanced budget, fought fiercely against the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who tried to propel the economy by pouring money into massive public works projects in rural areas, providing favors to interest groups in return for votes.

Tanaka started the faction now under Hashimoto’s name. The group was later headed by the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, then by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Hashimoto took the helm after Obuchi’s death in 2000.

Koizumi, a foe of big government spending, has long called for privatization of the postal services. The state-operated postal savings and insurance funds have been major financial sources for public works projects.

“Postal savings and road construction define Japan’s pork-barrel politics,” said Ichita Yamamoto, a younger-generation LDP politician in the House of Councilors who supports Koizumi’s reform agenda.

“The prime minister is trying to break up the collusion involving politicians, bureaucrats and industries with their shared interests, and the Hashimoto faction has the biggest stake in that arrangement,” Yamamoto said.

Koizumi’s unconventional break from old-style LDP politics is also reflected in his Cabinet choices, who were not picked based on a factional power balance. In the past, faction chiefs effectively decided who would be ministers.

But Koizumi snubbed the factions’ recommendations and named his own ministers, including many women and nonpoliticians from the private sector, such as Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka.

“It’s fair to say party politics changed considerably under Prime Minister Koizumi,” Yamamoto said. “Younger politicians have come to realize that old factional tactics do not sit well with the public.”

But the factions still pose a potent force inside the LDP, Koizumi found out, when their angered leaders dealt him a humiliating rejection in April when he tried to appoint a successor to Tadamori Oshima, who resigned as farm minister over a money scandal.

Koizumi approached at least three candidates from rival factions, but their bosses did not allow them to accept the offer.

The only choice left was former Transport Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei, a member of the faction led by LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, Koizumi’s closest associate.

This incident was widely viewed as reflecting Koizumi’s declining clout in the party.

And despite his confrontational posture toward the LDP’s mandarins, critics say Koizumi has failed to achieve most of his promised reforms.

Koizumi created several panels of experts, but offered little clear direction when divisions surfaced.

Last year, his panel for reforming the postal services — mail delivery, postal savings and insurance — failed to agree on a single strategy and in the end offered three different approaches in its final report in September.

The panel on privatizing the debt-laden state-run expressway operators erupted into chaos in December when its chairman resigned after clashing with radical reformers. Again, Koizumi offered no direction.

Forming panels to work on specific reform targets is nothing new. Past prime ministers, including Yasuhiro Nakasone and Hashimoto, also took this route.

But Nakasone, in privatizing the Japanese National Railways, and Hashimoto, in streamlining the bureaucracy, mapped out their own plans for the panels to pursue.

During the recent clash over financial system reforms between the Finance Ministry, which places priority on cutting state subsidies, and the home affairs ministry, which wants local-level governments to have greater tax-collection power, Koizumi sat on the sidelines.

The Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, Koizumi’s key panel, announced in June that subsidies will be cut by 4 trillion yen by fiscal 2006 in exchange for transferring tax revenue sources for at least 80 percent of that amount.

Although this was based on a last-minute decision by Koizumi, the decision represented a compromise between ministries that left a lot of room for them to protect their interests later.

“Contrary to Koizumi’s slogans, the power of bureaucrats has been actually strengthened under his administration,” political analyst Minoru Morita said.

“Koizumi has weakened the LDP’s policymaking power, but that’s not because he is a strong prime minister,” Morita said. “Koizumi is not well-versed in policy issues, and his panels are increasingly controlled by bureaucrats.”

Takashi Inoguchi, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo, agrees that Koizumi’s reform push has stalled, but noted the prime minister has exerted fairly strong leadership on the diplomatic front, including quick action to deal with terrorism following the attacks in the United States, and his historic summit in Pyongyang.

To achieve his reforms, Inoguchi said, Koizumi will have to ease his confrontational posture if he is re-elected in the party race.

“It’s about time that he finds a way to increase his support base within the party and turn his reform slogans into concrete action,” Inoguchi said. “If he can do that, he will be remembered as a prime minister who greatly changed Japanese politics and raised the level of public interest in it.”

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