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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (March 19, 2003)

Koizumi's Long-term Prospects Looking Grim

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A few hours after President Bush delivered his final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi held a press conference to clarify his own position. Koizumi told an anxious Japan that he fully endorsed Bush's stance, agreeing with the President that there was no need for a second U.N. resolution and now was the time for action, not diplomacy. While the majority of Americans support Bush's tough pre-emptive strike policy, Koizumi's position could not be more different. The latest Kyodo News poll revealed that 90.3% of people are unhappy with Koizumi's current policy on Iraq with just 5.7% supporting it. While Saddam Hussein's days in power seem to be coming to a rapid close, Koizumi's own long-term prospects are beginning to look just as grim.

Comparisons are often made in the Japanese press between the beleaguered British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Koizumi. Both men are going against the strong tide of public opinion in their countries and are openly embracing an unpopular pre-emptive strike policy. However, while there are plenty of political similarities to be found, Koizumi fails to generate the passion Blair displays in supporting Bush's policy. Koizumi's performance at his most recent press conference definitely lacked conviction and one wondered if he really believed in what he was actually saying. The Japanese public most certainly do not seem impressed with his performance. On the other hand, even Blair's bitterest detractors admit that he, rightly or wrongly, truly believes in what he is saying.

Because of the political parallels between the two countries, the Japanese media has been closely following events in Britain, which is causing Koizumi trouble. People were genuinely astonished by the resignation on a matter of principle of Robin Cook, a high ranking British Cabinet minister. Although Cook has the greatest respect for Blair, he could not support his pro-war Iraq policy. Most Japanese were amazed by Cook's action. Talk shows were full of comments on how Japanese politicians only ever resign after scandals and media pressure forces them from office. Emphasizing this point, Monday saw ruling party lawmaker Seiji Nakamura tender his resignation as chairman of the committee for Okinawa affairs due to an illegal political donations scandal. The parallels were not lost on the Japanese public and further undermine Koizumi and his party.

While Japanese voters are definitely concerned about Iraq policy, polls show that their number one priority is the economy. In this respect, the Iraq crisis could not have come at a worse time for Koizumi. The Japanese stock market has slumped to twenty year lows, deflation seems as rampant as ever and unemployment at an all-time high. The failure of Koizumi's economic strategy to produce concrete results has led the media to round on him. His pursuit of an immensely unpopular Iraq policy has finally turned the public against him. Political enemies within his own party are ceasing on his weakened position to try to further their own causes. This is the worst possible position to be in before local elections in April. If Koizumi's LDP does badly, his days in office could be numbered. Recently, political rivals in his own party have been openly discussing the "post-Koizumi" era.

In the last week, many national newspapers such as the Mainichi Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun have launched scathing attacks on Koizumi's Iraq policy, inflicting further damage on the popularity of the Prime Minister. The media has questioned Koizumi's right to pursue a policy that the vast majority of people reject.

The latest Kyodo News poll for March registered 79.7% of Japanese against an attack on Iraq. For months opinion surveys have been consistently showing that about 80% of people oppose a war on Iraq. Despite massive public disapproval of the new U.S. pre-emptive attack policy and almost daily anti-war demonstrations, Koizumi has not wavered. Instead, he has been hoping that the need for American support in dealing with the North Korean crisis would soften public opinion. However, a recent intensive media onslaught on his Iraq policy combined with a worsening economy have inflicted enormous damage on his premiership and he has not been able to effectively utilize the North Korean issue.

While Koizumi has proved that he is the king of political come-backs, he will need near superhuman effort to overcome his current difficulties. Nevertheless, the Iraq war and the North Korean crisis have created a climate of deep unpredictability, meaning that the Prime Minister cannot be written off yet. Ironically, Koizumi's backing for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power may well lead to his own eventual demise.

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