Young, debonair and eloquent, Shinjiro Koizumi has, in a way, become the political equivalent of a pop idol.
On the campaign trail, the son of charismatic former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attracts a huge crowd that nobody else in his Liberal Democratic Party can, and often finds himself swarmed by fans — mostly female — eager for a handshake and a selfie.
“I’ve always said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the LDP’s most popular guest speaker for its candidates on the stump, and Koizumi is the second-best. But now, it looks like Koizumi’s ability to draw a crowd has surpassed the prime minister’s,” LDP Upper House member Ichita Yamamoto blogged in amazement in February as he reflected on his party’s victory in the mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.
“There has never been a junior lawmaker like him in the past 20 years. The LDP has to really nurture this ‘star politician’ in his 30s,” Yamamoto wrote.
Little wonder, then, that all eyes are on what Koizumi, 37, might do in the lead-up to the LDP’s presidential election in September that could boost or doom Abe.
Although he himself is widely regarded as being too inexperienced to succeed Abe in the upcoming election, analysts say Koizumi is influential enough to disrupt or sway the race, even potentially undermining Abe’s campaign should he team up with the prime minister’s main adversaries, such as ex-Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.
The young scion has repeatedly ranked high in recent media surveys on who voters want to become the LDP’s next leader. A poll by Kyodo News last month, for one, showed Koizumi topping the list with a support rate of 26.6 percent, beating Ishiba at 24.7 percent and Abe at 21.1 percent.
Part of his strength lies in his elocutionary skills. Ever since his political debut in 2009, Koizumi has frequented a rakugo (comic tales) theater to steal techniques from veteran storyteller Yanagiya Sankyo before becoming one of the LDP’s greatest raconteurs himself.
“He’s really good at ascertaining what local people in each constituency want to hear from him at the very beginning of his speech — which is what we call makura in rakugo parlance — and winning their heart by addressing just that,” Yanagiya said of Koizumi’s campaign speeches in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Koizumi’s stardom has helped elevate his status within the party to a point where he can now openly criticize Abe’s scandal-tainted administration — seemingly without fear of being ostracized by party veterans.
“He is so massively popular with the public, particularly swing voters, that he is now in a position to be able to say whatever bold things he wants to say, and that few within the party are willing to chide or antagonize him,” said Koji Nakakita, a professor of political science at Hitotsubashi University.
With Koizumi, now the LDP’s chief deputy secretary-general, apparently keeping his distance from Abe, questions naturally arise over which candidate the star will align himself with in the September race.
In the 2012 presidential election, Koizumi voted for Abe’s rival, Ishiba.
His retired father, Junichiro, is taking an increasingly critical line against Abe, lashing out at his pro-nuclear stance and publicly questioning the prospect of him winning a third term. Koizumi himself had the stomach to say the LDP’s landslide victory in October’s Lower House election was not so much a public mandate for Abe’s policies as it was a byproduct of opposition camp disarray.
“The scariest scenario for Abe would be that Koizumi declares his support for Ishiba while his Cabinet’s approval ratings keep plummeting. That could create a sense within the LDP ranks that their party may have a better chance of winning national elections next year, including the summer Upper House poll, under the banner of an Ishiba-Koizumi pair than Abe’s,” Nakakita said.
But keenly aware of his own influence, Koizumi may instead choose to stay tight-lipped about whom he will vote for until the race is over.
“He is a smart guy. I think it’s possible that he will refrain from declaring which candidate to support so he can avoid causing a stir within the party,” Nakakita said.
This is the last of a two-part series on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election slated for September.