As the limitations of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government reveal themselves, there are emerging signs of the possible downfall of his Cabinet. The crushing defeat of a Liberal Democratic Party candidate in the Upper House by-election in the Niigata constituency on April 28 was one event testifying to this. Mass media noted that the victory of the LDP candidate in the Lower House by-election in Wakayama Prefecture on the same day, coupled with the victory of the opposition candidate in the Tokushima gubernatorial election, gave LDP one win and two losses.
The gubernatorial election aside, both Wakayama and Niigata have long been LDP strongholds. The Niigata defeat, especially, must have dealt a heavy blow to the LDP, as it has been an impregnable conservative fortress since the days of the late former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the father of former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka.
Obviously, Koizumi’s “sacking” of Tanaka as foreign minister on Jan. 29 seriously affected the by-election in Niigata. Until then, Koizumi had enjoyed a high public-approval rating of more than 80 percent, but his popularity there has since plunged to below 50 percent. This indicates that Tanaka had contributed to more than 30 percent of Koizumi’s popularity ever since his government began a little more than a year ago.
The April 28 election results, however, were not driven by the confrontation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Koizumi and Tanaka alone. Since the Jan. 29, the Koizumi boom has burst like a bubble for several reasons:
(1) There have been successive investigations of politicians’ dark sides, power struggles and the exposure of wrongdoing. Corruptions among LDP leaders, in particular, have sparked public distrust in politics. Eventually, senior LDP member Muneo Suzuki was forced to quit the LDP, and former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato had to give up his Lower House seat after leaving the LDP.
In late April, Upper House President Yutaka Inoue had to abandon the post following his policy-affairs secretary’s involvement in money scandal was brought to light. The Upper House by-election was held amid an uproar over LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki’s sex scandal.
(2) Although Koizumi has repeatedly said he was giving top priority to structural reforms, there has been no marked improvement in the economy and in business conditions. Severe ratings on Japan have come from the international community. Public concern about the deepening recession is mounting.
(3) Although the Koizumi administration is keen on legislation related to defense, domestic security and protection of personal data, even recently submitted bills on these issues have generated opposition and negative attitudes among not only opposition parties but also within the ruling coalition bloc. With the current Diet session scheduled to end June 19, Koizumi will have to display, better than he has so far, the qualities befitting the nation’s leader.
(4) Such qualities probably will be subjected to tests and criticism. Koizumi is a politician who made his debut by displaying political acumen and strong individuality, increasingly attracting public popularity. This writer once pointed to a similarity between Koizumi and former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa of eight years ago: “Hosokawa the predecessor and Koizumi the successor.”
Both men demonstrate sensitivity and have an excellent sense for reforming the status quo. But politicians who lead must promote politics with systematized policies, good aides and a gifted ability for theorizing. Without these, an administration is inevitably short-lived.
The Hosokawa government had to step down in less than one year because these essentials were inadequate. The Koizumi government, similar in nature to the Hosokawa government, may go the same way. The Koizumi government appears to be approaching a crucial hurdle.
The Koizumi government’s first benchmark was the end of January, nine months after its inauguration. Until then, all went well to give him popularity rating of 80 percent. But trouble occurred in his “kan-puter” (kan means sense) in late January when he sacked Tanaka. The LDP’s defeat in the Upper House by-election in Niigata is payback for that dismissal.
The approach to the end of the Diet session will be the hardest time for the Koizumi government. Will Koizumi government be phased out with its authority steadily declining, or will Koizumi be able to put his kan-puter to best use and dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election? The crucial moment will come by the end of June.
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