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Nearly three years have passed since Junichiro Koizumi made his dashing debut as prime minister with an unprecedentedly high public approval rate of 80 percent, after declaring somewhat self-contradictorily that he would not hesitate to destroy his own Liberal Democratic Party to attain his reform goals.

Today many newspaper editorials tease him about his fading image, yet he is still favored by nearly 50 percent of the population — partly because, as many lament, there seems to be nobody to replace him.

The Japanese political scene is said to face three major turning points over the next 12 months: the end of the current fiscal year in March, the end of the current ordinary Diet session in June and the election of the LDP president in September. In addition, local elections will be held nationwide in April.

The Koizumi government is stuck with many hot potatoes, including the protracted economic recession and diplomatic issues involving Iraq, North Korea and security.

Regarding Iraq, there is no prospect of an early resolution of the deadlock between the hard line pursued by the United States and Britain, on one hand, and the cautious call by France, Germany and other European countries for continued U.N. inspections of suspected Iraqi weapons sites, on the other. Some people see the end of March as the deadline for ending the impasse. Nobody can exclude the possibility of the Anglo-American alliance losing all patience with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The North Korean issue is equally serious. Japan, the U.S. and South Korea are not speaking the same language in dealing with Pyongyang. Japan’s relations with North Korea are particularly difficult, as they involve two problems that cannot be separated from each other — the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the past and the North’s nuclear development at present.

If a catastrophe becomes a reality either in the Middle East or in Northeast Asia, Japan and the Koizumi government will be forced to make a hard choice between advocating international peace or adhering to the alliance with the U.S.

Complicating these issues is the lingering economic recession. A war in either Iraq or North Korea would inevitably boost oil prices, making the Koizumi regime even more vulnerable.

On the domestic front, Koizumi has finally chosen the next Bank of Japan governor: Toshihiko Fukui. Also nominated were two deputies, Toshiro Muto and Kazumasa Iwata. Nobody knows for sure whether this trio will prove that “three heads are better than one,” or whether any one of them will blunder in trying to steer the course of the Japanese economy from deflation to inflation. This, too, is a life-and-death matter for the Koizumi government.

At the end of the Diet session in June, a bitter confrontation between the coalition and opposition camps might prompt Koizumi to seek to dissolve the House of Representatives and call for general elections. Some speculate that he is not in a position to take such action because of his fading popularity. Others say that his shrewd political instincts will enable him to play his trump card if he chooses.

My hunch is that the fate of the Koizumi regime won’t be determined until the LDP leadership contest in September. With the opposition parties in such disarray, many LDP members are saying that whoever heads the LDP will lead the nation.

Who then can be counted on as candidates to oppose Koizumi? Earlier, four names were mentioned — Taro Aso, Masahiko Komura, Takeo Hiranume and Makoto Koga — but they have all sunk into oblivion.

At present, two lawmakers appear to have a reasonable chance of standing up against Koizumi — Mitsuo Horiuchi, head of the LDP Executive Council, and Shizuka Kamei, who claims he is the only one capable of running the government. Complaints about the dearth of alternatives to Koizumi won’t go away, though, because neither Horiuchi nor Kamei are regarded as likely to effect appreciable change.

The faint hope that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara will run for the LDP leadership is nothing but the vain longing for a hero with virtually no chance of success.

Must we settle for the re-election of Koizumi to head both the LDP and the government — despite his dwindling popularity — because there is nobody to replace him? If that’s going to be the case, we will have to accept Japan’s reputation in the international community as a third- or fourth-rate nation.

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