Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is losing his precious political capital: public popularity. He may be likened to a stage actor who no longer strikes a strong chord in his audience. The actor still has many fans, but he is falling short of general expectations. Moreover, his lines lack punch and he is often out of step with the supporting players.
That is one way to describe Mr. Koizumi’s performance for the past year. His “structural reform” initiative, which started with a bang in April 2001, has produced few results. Perhaps it is too early to take this as evidence of failure, for the prime minister has embarked on a long-term enterprise that calls for a drastic overhaul of traditional systems and practices. Still, the perception that it is failing is spreading.
In principle, Mr. Koizumi has consistently pursued his reform agenda. In practice, however, he has abandoned one promise after another, including a pledge to cap debt issuance at 30 trillion yen. Bond sales for fiscal 2003 are now set at 36 trillion yen, accounting for 45 percent of the government budget. This shows how difficult it is to keep commitments in the face of harsh economic realities.
Mr. Koizumi keeps saying that his commitment to structural reform is “unshakable.” But people no longer take this statement at face value. Opinion polls suggest that policy mistakes are responsible for the continuing economic slump. In fact, deflation appears to be worsening despite the prime minister’s brave talk of reshaping the economy from the ground up.
Mr. Koizumi owes the nation an accounting of what has gone wrong and why. Early in his administration, he received public applause for his resolve, expressed in plain language, to fight antireform forces, including the old guard in his own party. Now, however, he is silent most of the time, as if he has given up. Those who once cheered him on are deeply disappointed.
The problem for Mr. Koizumi has been, and still is, that he has a weak power base. Symbolic of this is the political turmoil that followed the dismissal in January of his popular foreign minister, Mrs. Makiko Tanaka, who had played a key role in catapulting Mr. Koizumi into power. The event exposed the limits of his leadership and his popularity.
First, he missed a golden opportunity to shake up the Foreign Ministry, whose reputation had been badly tarnished by money scandals and internal disputes. Second, his public approval ratings went into a nose dive as the public became skeptical of his ability to push his agenda through.
It is true that the prime minister’s surprise visit to North Korea in September led to a breakthrough in the search for Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents during the Cold War. His popularity rebounded, but not to the stratospheric level reached in his early months in office. Now Tokyo-Pyongyang talks on normalizing relations have stalemated as the situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to deteriorate.
Public support is indispensable, particularly to Mr. Koizumi, who faces stubborn resistance from within his own party. Indeed, the success of his reform campaign depends on his standing in opinion polls. If he continues to lose support, it will likely hit a wall sooner or later. But reviving his fortunes will be no easy task. A turning point will come sometime next year if, as seems likely, the prime minister calls a snap general election.
It is not difficult to imagine that the Pyongyang trip was aimed partly at breaking the political deadlock at home. Meeting face to face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was a diplomatic feat, but what happened afterward — a stalemate in the normalization talks — has brought Mr. Koizumi new problems. The lesson here is that even a well-conceived plan can fall through. And so it is with the assumption that a general election would give him a big boost.
In fairness to the prime minister, it must be said that the opposition parties are also to blame for the lack of genuine progress toward economic revival. In fact, the lack of opposition initiative has been a salient feature of Japanese politics for the past year. Their failure to counter the governing coalition on economic policy, in particular, has created a sense of paralysis in the Diet.
It is worrying to think that the nation’s political world, not just the economy, is sliding deeper into a slump. The birth last week of a 14-member New Conservative Party — the result of splits within the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and one of the ruling coalition groups, the Conservative Party — appears to have been little more than a tempest in a teacup. The hope is that the coming year will bring real change to the political stage, the kind of change that can create a new sense of urgency among the national audience as well.
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