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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (May 1, 2003)

Koizumi Seeks an Extended Political Mandate:
Can One Man Defy Gravity?

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's second anniversary in office triggered a massive wave of media speculation about his future prospects. Many pundits are predicting that the nation's leader will soon have to relinquish his post. Koizumi himself seems completely confident that he will retain power for a few more years and defy his critics. In order to survive, Koizumi will have to overcome some daunting economic and political challenges. The next few months will be crucial in determining whether he can retain his crown.

Apart from the two-year anniversary itself, no actual concrete event lay behind the sudden media onslaught aimed at Koizumi. The underlying cause for the outburst is to be found in the short political lifespan of most Japanese leaders. While a week is considered a long time in British politics, two years is normally an entire lifetime for a Japanese Prime Minister. Furthermore, not every individual is lucky enough to survive this long in office and some premierships last just a few months. Since 1972, only one premier has celebrated a third year in office and that was back in 1985 when Yasuhiro Nakasone held the post. It is this backdrop that convinces so many political analysts that Koizumi's days at the top must be numbered. To try to escape the fate of most of his predecessors, Koizumi is concentrating his survival efforts on two key areas: deflecting criticism of his economic policies and winning re-election as his party's president.

On the day of the anniversary, Japan's die-hard leader broke with convention and was not to be found on Japanese soil. In a carefully calculated move, Mr. Koizumi chose to be in London performing before the global media in his role as an international statesman. A week-long tour of the major European capitals gave the premier the perfect opportunity to emphasize his international credentials and project an image of strong leadership. As he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, Koizumi was radiating with the Shakespearean confidence of a winner. The trip was also an extremely shrewd political move aimed at avoiding bad news at home. On the first day of his visit, the Japanese stock market tumbled to a new twenty-year low and the latest youth unemployment statistics hit a record high of 13.2%.

Koizumi has an amazing flare for dodging bad economic news by utilizing the international stage to create his own counter-headlines. The best example of this was his unexpected 2002 North Korean foray, which also clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of this type of strategy. The Pyongyang visit revitalized Koizumi's then sagging popularity and focused the nation's attention away from the ailing economy. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq furnished another chance to turn voters' minds away from domestic woes.

If the economy remains in its current near terminal condition, then part of Koizumi's survival strategy will have to be based around utilizing his international status to generate positive media coverage. This is the only way to distract the electorate away from the nation's near economic collapse. While such a policy is obviously fraught with a great deal of risk, it might be the only viable option.

There are currently two highly potent foreign policy issues that could already be written into the Koizumi survival scenario. One is the ongoing confrontation with the ever unpredictable North Korean regime. Resolving this crisis requires an incredibly delicate balancing act between the United States and North Korea. This is a role for which Koizumi is uniquely qualified. In Washington, Koizumi's support for the Iraq invasion has raised his profile to such a degree that no other Japanese politician can match him. This status is a powerful asset in the domestic political arena.

The other potential opportunity for displaying international statesmanship would be a treaty with Russia to finally resolve a longstanding territorial dispute over four islands lying off Hokkaido. These were seized by Moscow in the dying days of WWII. A well timed and satisfactory breakthrough in the Northern Territories dispute would probably be enough to overshadow domestic economic gloom and substantially boost Koizumi's rating.

Besides deflecting attention away from the failure of his financial policies, the prime minister's other key objective will be to get himself re-elected Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president in September. If he does not accomplish this, he will lose his job. This is because the LDP is the dominate force in the governing coalition and its president automatically assumes the premiership. Re-election will be an uphill struggle as powerful forces within his own factious party are against him. Many prominent LDP figures have already clearly signaled that they consider Koizumi's allocated time is up. One faction leader, Shizuka Kamei, has even declared he will run against Koizumi while other faction chiefs have recently highlighted Koizumi's isolation from the mainstream of the party by hindering his appointment of a Cabinet Minister.

Despite the tense relationship between Koizumi and his party, the premier's greatest strength is that at the moment he has no realistic contender within parliament who can match his popularity with the public. His impressive track record in sustaining his own personal ratings despite near economic meltdown and a generally hostile press will undoubtedly make him a formidable opponent. His mastery and brilliant exploitation of the media has already altered the underlying dynamics of Japanese politics. Whoever takes over from Koizumi will have to display a similar kind of appeal to a public that has now come to expect more from their leader. Provided Koizumi can sustain his current 40% plus popularity rating, his bitter party rivals may find it impossible to depose him.

If there is one guiding principle that holds the LDP together, it is the overwhelming desire to be in power. Were the LDP grandees to pass the premiership to someone like Shizuka Kamei, they would be committing electoral suicide. They are fully aware of this fact and ultimately unlikely to risk their own political futures by such a foolhardy act. Thus, despite senior party figures' obvious loathing of Koizumi, they may in the end conclude that a popular Koizumi is their best hope of hanging on to power.

As long as he can retain the presidency of his own party and contain the current economic crisis, he has a reasonable chance of staying in power for at least another year or two. In the final analysis, the greatest danger may come from his economic policies not his political enemies. Even if he has some great foreign policy triumphs, the dire financial situation may yet generate enough public anger to bring this daredevil politician crashing down to earth. Koizumi's battle to stay in power is certainly going to be a tale with an unpredictable end.

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