A big question hangs over Japanese politics in 2003: Will a snap general election be held? The key to the question is held by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has the prerogative of dissolving the Lower House. Mr. Koizumi, who is also president of the Liberal Democratic Party, faces a party presidential contest in September.

Election rumors have been circulating as Mr. Koizumi continues to fight an uphill battle in pursuing his reform agenda. His drive to privatize debt-ridden highway corporations faces high hurdles, as does his plan to clean up the banking system. Not surprisingly, the LDP’s old guard, looking for a reversal of tight economic policy, wants to see him step down.

Diplomacy will also test Mr. Koizumi’s leadership. In the event of a war in Iraq, Japan will need to articulate its position more clearly. Closer to home, North Korea’s nuclear adventurism also poses a grave challenge to Tokyo.

The Diet, due to open a regular session this month, sets the stage for a political tug of war between the ruling and opposition parties. The Democratic Party of Japan, which elected its new leaders in December, is bracing for a “showdown” with the Koizumi administration over economic policy. However, the largest opposition party remains too weak to seize power.

The DPJ, plagued by internal discord, has seen its public support drop to an all-time low. Last month, five dissidents left the party to form the New Conservative Party, along with dissenters from the Conservative Party, a junior partner in the ruling coalition. The DPJ will likely lose more members unless it bridges differences over security and other key policy planks.

When will a general election be held? Certainly not at the outset of the Diet session, which opens on Jan. 20. This is partly because the prime minister wants to get the new government budget through the legislature by the end of March. He also must address immediate foreign-policy concerns, such as Iraq.

A round of local elections in April also precludes a Lower House election in that month, as does a string of parliamentary by-elections set for April 27. In this connection, the question of whether Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Koizumi, will run again is a focus of attention. Anti-Koizumi members of the LDP are reportedly looking to Ishihara as head of a new party oriented toward urban voters.

A Lower House poll in June, when the regular Diet session is due to adjourn (unless it is extended), is a possibility. Mr. Taku Yamasaki, the LDP secretary general, has hinted that the prime minister might disband the chamber in June, noting that the last Lower House voting took place in June 2000. The term for the Lower House members is four years.

Electoral politics is always complicated. New Komeito, for instance, is opposed to a “double election” — same-day balloting for the Upper and Lower Houses — in summer 2004. This makes it possible that the prime minister might call a snap election if the opposition parties present a no-confidence vote against his administration at the end of the next Diet session. If the LDP wins the election, Mr. Koizumi almost certainly will be re-elected president in September.

There is another possibility: Mr. Koizumi might call a general election in early September in order to secure his re-election in the LDP presidential vote. The prime minister himself has ruled out that possibility, saying he will seek a popular mandate only if his reform initiative has been obstructed. Nevertheless his chances for re-election depend on how his running battle with the party’s antireform forces develops.

His public approval ratings have been falling of late, due partly to the lackluster showing of his “structural reform” program. A further decline in popularity will embolden his critics in the LDP to the extent that they may prevent him from exercising his right to dissolve the Lower House.

In deciding when to hold an election, therefore, the prime minister will need to weigh a range of factors, including reactions from LDP opponents, the situation surrounding Iraq, progress in Japan-North Korea talks and economic conditions. It will be a tough decision to make, but if he is re-elected party president without a general election, then a double election in mid-2004 will become more likely.

What if Mr. Koizumi loses the presidential race but stays on as prime minister? That would create an anomalous relationship between the Cabinet and the LDP, given the parliamentary Cabinet system. As a result, the political situation would be thrown into confusion, forcing him to dissolve the Lower House anyway. Should that happen, however, both the LDP and the DPJ would be split, setting off a wave of party realignments. The new year is likely to become a tumultuous one in the world of politics.

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