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

Japanese Premier's Adversaries Want "Regime Change"

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

As the dramatic U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein enters its end phase, in Japan the first salvos of a very different kind of war have already been fired. The recent resignation of a scandal tainted Cabinet minister was the trigger for a ferocious assault on the authority of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Alarmingly, the Japanese premier's adversaries were not opposition politicians, but senior members of his own party. His internal opponents have decided to pursue their own version of "regime change" with Mr. Koizumi as the target. As the Iraqi dictator's rule came to an end, Mr. Koizumi's own future prospects were not looking particularly favourable.

Hostilities began when the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Tadamori Oshima, was forced to resign over an escalating series of money-related scandals involving personal aids. When PM Koizumi attempted to fill the vacant post, he was astonished to find all his initial candidates refused the job on instructions from their faction bosses. After being given the cold shoulder a humiliating three times, the PM was left with no alternative but to turn to one of his few trusted factional allies for a replacement. Many commentators consider the final choice, Yoshiyuki Kamei, a less than suitable new appointment as he has no experience in agricultural affairs.

In the world of Japanese politics, three candidates turning down a top Cabinet post is rather like having three lottery winners refuse a million dollar jackpot. Normally, the various factions that make up the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would be locked in an intensive struggle to secure one of their own men a vacant Cabinet position. The fact that it was so difficult to find a replacement dramatically highlights the extreme isolation of the Prime Minister from some of the most influential figures within his own party.

The only possible interpretation of these extraordinary events is that powerful elements within the Prime Minister's own party have effectively declared war against him. The public nature of the action clearly signals that their ultimate goal must be to unseat Mr. Koizumi.

Internal dissatisfaction with Koizumi's reign has been growing since the day he won the LDP party presidency, a position which automatically enables the holder to ascend to the Japanese premiership. When Koizumi made his challenge for the LDP crown in 2001, his public appeal was incredibly strong. It allowed him to overwhelm his heavy-weight opponents and successfully propel himself into office. Under the traditional Byzantine practices of the LDP, this sort of thing should never have happened. After he was enthroned, Koizumi's immense popularity shielded him from the daggers of his many would-be internal assassins. Sickness and scandal also helped rob his detractors of any suitable Brutus type figure to act as a replacement.

During his nearly two years in office, Koizumi has proved to be a gifted media performer which has allowed him to sustain his popularity. However, lately his high tide of fortune has been on the ebb. The failure of his reforms to ameliorate the deteriorating economic situation has seriously dented his appeal. This downward trend has been accelerated by his steadfast support for American military action in Iraq which is unpopular with the majority of Japanese voters.

Compounding his woes in recent months has been the loss of support from all major national newspapers, many of which are now quite hostile towards him. Even so, he still manages to poll well above the 40% mark, a level that is unusually high for an incumbent Prime Minister. This degree of support shows that the resourceful Koizumi can by no means be written off at this juncture. Nevertheless, his recent difficulties have embolden his party rivals into launching their first major strike against him.

The move to hinder the appointment of a new Agriculture Minister is evidently the initial skirmish in a long battle plan to destabilize and remove Mr. Koizumi from office. The months leading up to the next LDP presidential race in September are certain to see Koizumi come under sustained "friendly fire." The aim of his LDP foes will be to engage in opportunistic hit and run missions to undermine his authority. The ultimate objective of this will be to make his re-election as party president impossible and thus deny him the premiership.

A mixed performance by the LDP in the unified local elections during April could be the tripwire for another offensive strike. His opponents are likely to use any excuse to attack their "leader." The next few months will be very tough for the Prime Minister as his administration is likely to find itself under virtual siege from powerful forces within his party.

The Koizumi survival strategy will probably be based around two assumptions. Firstly, as powerful as his internal enemies are, they lack any real unity. The only thing that truly binds them together is their desire to remove him from office. However, once it comes to deciding who should replace him, they are likely to be at each others throats. The lack of a credible alternative to Koizumi is the second plank in his survival plan and is likely to sustain the PM's hopes of clinging to power. This all means that both sides within the party are likely to battle to the bitter end, a prospect which will no doubt lift the spirits of the opposition parties.

A different and shorter version of this article appeared in the 14 April 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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