The long Diet session has come to an end, and politicians have gone on summer vacation. The first half of the latest session was marred by a number of political scandals; during the second half, legislators were busy deliberating on a number of important bills. A sense of vanity, though, pervades the nation’s political landscape.
The popularity of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government, which had remained at about 80 percent for months, plummeted by half after January. Toward the end of the Diet session, his ratings appeared to recover enough to avert a “crisis” that some thought would force the prime minister to choose either to dissolve the House of Representatives and call general elections, or resign his post around September.
It now appears that he will be able to remain in office until next spring, the second anniversary of his assuming power, partly because of the accepted notion that there is nobody else to replace him.
Yet the political and economic scenes remain unstable. It appears likely that a number of political “typhoons” will hit Japan around the time that politicians end their summer vacations.
First, between August and early September, there will be personnel reshuffles within the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Second, the leading opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, will elect its new leader Sept. 23. Third, Oct. 27 will see by-elections in the 4th district of Yamagata, 8th district of Kanagawa and 10th district of Osaka for the House of Representatives, as well as in Chiba and Tottori for the House of Councilors. I would like to speculate on each of these events in reverse order.
By-elections are like general elections on a small scale. If the LDP loses in these elections, the appraisal of the Koizumi regime’s accomplishments during the past 18 months could fall drastically.
If the DPJ succeeds in maintaining unity and elects a new leader, the standing of all opposition groups could rise. So far, three lawmakers have announced candidacies — incumbent Yukio Hatoyama, DPJ Secretary General Naoto Kan and Takahiro Yokomichi. The focal point at the moment is whether younger representatives, in their 40s, will throw their hats into the ring. Although Policy Board Chairman Katsuya Okada refuses to be a candidate, it has been rumored that others leaders of the younger generation, such as acting Secretary General Seishi Maebara and Publicity Committee Chairman Shigefumi Matsuzawa, may run. In the end, the choice will probably be between Hatoyama and a younger leader.
Top government and LDP posts also will be reshuffled. Within the LDP, more and more voices are calling for a large-scale reshuffle. The central issue is whether Secretary General Yaku Yamasaki will stay on. At one point, it appeared almost certain that Yamasaki would have to step down. But because of his close personal relationship with Koizumi, there is a strong possibility that he will retain his post. Another issue is whether somebody will be named vice president of the party.
The reshuffle will have an important bearing on the election of the party president scheduled a year from now. It has been reported that those aspiring to succeed Koizumi include Mikio Akio, the LDP secretary general for the Upper House; former Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka; and Executive Board Chairman Mitsuo Horiuchi. Separately, it is rumored that Horiuchi seeks to replace Yamasaki this year.
The outcome of the LDP and DPJ elections will have a significant impact on politics from 2003. In the spring of next year, there will be nationwide local elections, and in the fall, the tenure of Koizumi as LDP head will expire.
A focal point locally is whether Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara will seek re-election following his first four-year term. Ishihara often has been mentioned as the standard-bearer to succeed Koizumi as prime minister. But he has to run for a seat in the House of Representatives to qualify as a candidate for prime minister, and he can’t do that while serving as Tokyo governor. That means he will have to announce in late December or early January whether he will seek a second gubernatorial term.
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