The most striking impression about 2002 is that the world has become increasingly insecure. When two jetliners hijacked by suicide terrorists crashed into New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, old-fashioned big-power games ended and a new struggle between civilized society and international terrorism began.
As this year draws to a close, the war on terror appears to be entering a new phase with the United States homing in on “rogue states.” In the Middle East, Iraq is the target of a possible U.S. invasion. In the Far East, North Korea — another member of U.S. President George W. Bush’s declared “axis of evil” — is rattling the nuclear saber.
The antiterror campaign, joined by Russia and China, has altered the world’s geopolitical map. In particular, China, prime candidate to become the next superpower, has edged ever closer to the U.S. Symbolic of this was Beijing’s support for America’s post-9/11 retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and al-Qaeda terrorists.
Japan has played its part in this new war by expanding its logistic support for U.S. forces. It is now ready to back up a U.S. war in Iraq, but faces a big dilemma in how to deal with North Korea because of the abduction issue: the kidnapping of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. Efforts to resolve the issue took a dramatic turn in September when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise visit to Pyongyang for face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The trip opened the way for the return home of five of the abductees, giving a fresh boost to Koizumi’s sagging popularity.
Although Pyongyang says the issue has been settled for all practical purposes, it is far from over. It has become further complicated diplomatically due to North Korea’s admitted nuclear weapons program and to delicate differences in attitude toward North Korea among Japan, South Korea and the U.S.
What’s worse, Japan’s economy appears to be slipping back into recession. Koizumi’s “structural reform” agenda so far has produced few substantial results, and the general public is increasingly disappointed with his leadership.
Until recently, the Koizumi administration had enjoyed approval ratings of 60 to 80 percent — except for a short period following Koizumi’s dismissal of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka last January.
According to recent polls by leading newspapers, including the Asahi and the Nihon Keizai, his approval ratings barely reach 50 percent, down more than 10 points from earlier polls. Although that is still considerably higher than for previous administrations of the past decade, it is hard to escape the impression that the Koizumi Cabinet is in decline.
At the same time, the political situation is becoming fluid as the ruling and opposition parties try to stake out an advantageous position in the year ahead. There are three reasons for this: 2003 will be an election year; increasing public distrust of politics is driving parties to reorganize; and as Koizumi begins to look more and more like a lame duck, there is a growing sense that a leadership change may be around the corner.
More specifically, a round of local elections is scheduled for the latter half of April. Also, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will hold a presidential election in late September when Koizumi’s term as LDP president expires. In June 2004, Lower House members will come to the end of their four-year term. And, in the following month, Upper House members elected in 1998 will come up for re-election.
Regardless of term expirations, there is growing speculation that a Lower House election may be held next spring or autumn. That possibility is already prompting moves toward party realignment. If a general election is not held next year, it will probably be held in July 2004 — on the same day as the next Upper House election.
It is more likely, though, that the Lower House will be dissolved next year in connection with the expiration of Koizumi’s term as LDP president in September. My prediction is that he will probably call a snap election either before April’s local elections or before September’s LDP presidential contest.
This year the political situation in Japan has been relatively calm in the sense that the configuration of political parties has not changed significantly. The coming year, however, will likely see a wave of turmoil both at home and abroad.
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