Bush Boosts Koizumi's Hopes of Staying in Office
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Like an Arthurian Knight after an epic triumph, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi confidently strode back into the Diet (parliament) on his return from a roundtable meeting with President Bush. With an amazing new air of self-confidence, he calmly dispatched his political opponents at the regular prime-ministerial question session. His summit with Bush has reinvigorated his authority and markedly improved his chances of remaining in office. During his latest parliamentary performance, Koizumi gave the impression that he is actually holding office, rather than merely clinging to it. This is something of a rarity for a Japanese Prime Minister, whose political life and power are both characteristically limited.
In September, Koizumi must face re-election as the Liberal Democratic Party's president, a post that enables the holder to assume or retain the premiership. Unofficially, the competition has already begun with Koizumi's enemies frantically plotting to steal his crown. However, the Bush summit has changed the underlying dynamics of the contest and greatly strengthened Koizumi's hopes of defeating all the pretenders to his throne.
Koizumi appears to have constructed two main re-election strategies, both with foreign policy issues at their core. The primary plan involves supporting American reconstruction efforts in Iraq by dispatching military personnel to the region. This would involve extending the current session of parliament, which is scheduled to end on 18 June. This maneuver would be extremely beneficial to Koizumi for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it would strengthen his position by basically allowing him to dominate the political arena in the run-up to the LDP presidential race in September. Additionally, it would enhance his ability to concentrate on foreign affairs and deflect public attention from the abysmal state of the economy. Furthermore, prolonging the current session would take pressure off the PM to reshuffle his Cabinet, a move demanded by his political adversaries. Changing his senior ministers would make Koizumi look weak while strengthening his rivals.
There are two major hurdles to overcome before the life of the current parliament can be lengthened. Firstly, extending Diet business requires a legitimate and convincing reason. If not, the public would too easily interpret it as a highly cynical ploy for political advantage. Secondly, there is tremendous opposition to the idea from Koizumi's powerful political foes who believe that such a move would make the Koizumi re-election juggernaut almost unstoppable. These elements can be relied upon to do everything in their power to block such a measure.
Before visiting America, supporters of Koizumi's re-election bid floated the possibility of an extension to parliamentary proceedings for the passing of emergency legislation on Iraq. The proposed bill would be designed to assist in the rebuilding of the country and allow Japanese Self-Defense Force personnel to be dispatched to aid in reconstruction. As this was only a suggestion, the Prime Minister himself remained tight-lipped about the idea. His opponents were quick to denounce it as a crude re-election tactic.
This is where the rendezvous with Bush fits into the plot. The President was keen to show his appreciation for Koizumi's staunch support over the Iraq invasion. He met Koizumi on arrival in Texas and personally took him for a long car tour of his Crawford ranch. The two leaders then held two hours of poolside talks with just their interpreters present. We can only speculate about the content of these discussions, but no doubt Bush found some means to express his gratitude to Koizumi.
At the subsequent press conference, President Bush told Koizumi that visible Japanese cooperation would be very useful in the efforts to reconstruct Iraq. Bush strongly implied that he expected Japan to provide a tangible physical presence besides financial assistance. Without saying it directly, he was in essence asking Japan to send the SDF to Iraq, something that would require new laws and an extension of parliament. Bush went on to say that he trusted Koizumi to decide on the appropriate contribution for Japan to make toward helping rebuild Iraq. By a strange coincidence, the President's suggestion was exactly the same course of action Koizumi supporters had also been advocating in Japan. Despite smiling profusely, Koizumi was somewhat vague in his response to Bush, but did mention "contributions befitting Japan's capability."
Any new legislation would require about forty to fifty days to pass through the Diet and entail extending the current session of parliament to some time in August. Conveniently, this would also be a few weeks before the LDP presidential race. So far, Koizumi has said that he is still considering whether or not to send the SDF to Iraq as Bush has requested. He has stated that no decision will be made until after the 1 to 3 June G8 summit in Evian, France. This may be because he needs more time to overcome strong resistance to the idea from within his own party or because he wishes to give the impression that he really is considering the matter. However, it seems difficult to believe that Bush would have publicly asked Koizumi to send the SDF, if he thought it went against the PM's wishes. Furthermore, it is even harder to believe that Koizumi would refuse such a request which so miraculously converges with his own personal re-election strategy. Koizumi should have little trouble selling this policy to the public as he can justify it as a necessary measure Japan must take if it is to get the American support it needs to deal with a belligerent North Korea. After all, Japan can hardly turn the President of the United States down when his help is so needed to deal with a dangerous neighbour.
North Korean policy itself forms the other essential strand in the Koizumi re-election game plan. It is an issue that is also set to dominate the political agenda in the coming weeks and months with talks scheduled with South Korea, the US and China. If for any reason Koizumi fails to prolong the current Diet session, then North Korea alone will form the backbone of his attempts to distract the electorate away from the country's economic woes. On the other hand, if the emergency Iraq bill is put forward, then national political debate will be completely dominated by two foreign policy issues. This is exactly what Koizumi needs to ensure he has the best chance of keeping the party presidency and retaining the Holy Grail of Japanese politics. Unless his opponents can somehow unearth a scandal to topple him from Camelot, Koizumi looks likely to remain at Japan's helm for the next few years.
(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 31 May 2001, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.)
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