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The surprising triumph of maverick reformer Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister of Japan could ironically wind up sabotaging hopes for periodic changes in the nation’s government.

For years, political analysts and opposition leaders have been predicting that a grand realignment of politicians would create a new force capable of heading the government and given Japan a two-party political structure. The spark for such an upheaval, the analysts insisted, would be another rebellion in the LDP similar to the one in 1993, when a party split drove it out of power for 10 months.

Koizumi’s victory, however, has eliminated the possibility of a realignment, at least for the foreseeable future.

All of a sudden, the LDP’s most disgruntled politicians — the ones who were most likely to bolt the LDP — are now running the party. And without “realigners,” you can’t have realignment.

Now it is the opposition, not the LDP, that must worry about defectors. Indeed, two members of a factional offshoot of the Democratic Party broke ranks and cast their ballots for Koizumi in the Lower House election of the prime minister.

Koizumi and the rebels he has brought into his government may fall short of expectations or be undercut by renewed factional strife in the LDP. But they are not likely to leave the party.

Last November, the ill-fated protest launched by Koichi Kato against Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori underscored the importance LDP rebels attach to their party membership. Even while threatening to vote with the opposition in favor of a no-confidence motion against the prime minister, Kato insisted that neither he nor his supporters would leave the LDP. And when he backed down, Kato cited the fear of expulsion from the party as “a price too dear to pay.”

“LDP politics is Japanese politics,” Kato said. And “without changing politics, Japan cannot change.” Koizumi made the same point this year by calling for reform of the LDP to reform Japan.

All along, young Turks like Nobuteru Ishihara, who now finds himself in the Cabinet, rejected any thought of bolting the party even as they bitterly complained about its corruption, its backroom decision-making, and its seniority-based appointments.

The fact is that LDP rebels have no place to flee. As Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis says, Japan is one of the few countries in the world where opposition parties’ backing does not grow when the ruling party loses support. “When support for the LDP goes down to 20 percent, support for the Democrats goes down to 8 percent,” he said.

The Democratic Party of Japan — the new major opposition party led by Yukio Hatoyama, himself a fugitive from the LDP — has been called a “refugee camp.” It is already full of politicians who left a hodgepodge of other political parties to seek refuge under its broad, catch-all, anti-LDP approach. But not only has it failed to unite behind clear policies, it also lacks anything resembling the nationwide organization of the Liberal Democratic Party and the “supporters’ associations” of its individual members of Parliament.

Most of all it lacks what glues the factions of the Liberal Democratic Party together: power. Without control of the government, the LDP would disintegrate within a year, political commentator Takao Iwami says.

Historically speaking, Koizumi’s selection reaffirmed the ruling party’s flexibility — although cynics might call it lack of principle. Every time threats to its control of government have emerged in the past, the LDP has taken radical action to deal with the challenge.

In 1974, when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was forced out of office by charges of illicit political wheeling and dealing, Etsusaburo Shiina, the LDP’s kingmaker of the day, handpicked Takeo Miki, an LDP “Balkan politician,” to give the party a “clean” face.

In 1989, after losing their majority in an Upper House election debacle, the Liberal Democrats plucked Toshiki Kaifu — another powerless “Mr. Clean” — out of obscurity to give the party an aura of reform.

In 1994, the LDP turned to the Socialist Party, its archenemy for four decades, and elevated its chairman, Tomiichi Murayama, in order to ride his coattails back into power.

The late factional boss Michio Watanabe explained the party’s tactics by citing the kabuki play “Chushingura.” The play has been performed again and again over the centuries, he said, yet the people never tire of it because new lead actors “add a new flavor even while the script never changes.”

The glow of Koizumi’s astronomical support ratings (around 80 percent) recalls similar flashes in the past. Yohei Kono ignited one in 1976 when he bolted the LDP and set up his New Liberal Club. Morihiro Hosokawa triggered another when he became prime minister in 1993 only a year and a half after founding a new political party.

Like Kono and Hosokawa, Koizumi could easily turn out to be a flash in the pan. But with the LDP still controlling the Lower House, only a change in voting behavior greater than any yet displayed by the electorate could force a political realignment.

In a speech at the traditional May Day labor rally, Koizumi urged labor-union members to see his victory as “a kind of change in government.” If voters continue to balk at administering the coup de grace to the LDP, Koizumi’s administration may indeed be as close as Japanese politics gets to a change in government.

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