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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
May 2001

The Koizumi Administration -- Its Evaluation and Prospects

Shin-ichi KITAOKA (Professor, University of Tokyo)

The Prime Minister's Role in LDP PoliticsPopular support for the Koizumi administration is extremely high. In poll after poll, its approval rate is beyond 80% and hitting a record high in Japan. Behind this popularity there seems to be public dissatisfaction about the old-fashioned politics of the LDP. What went wrong with LDP politics? Can the Koizumi administration really make a change?

One of the main characteristics of LDP politics is the dispersion of power. The power of the Prime Minister is divided between the government and the party, where the government is divided into various ministries and the party is divided into various factions, run by consensus decision making. In consensus-based decision making time tends to be wasted, and matters cannot be decided if even a small minority group strongly objects . As a result, it is impossible to have strong, dynamic politics. The Prime Minister should play a more central and stronger leadership role in politics. That means that we must return to the original idea of the parliamentary cabinet system.However, former Prime Minister Mori had a tendency to delegate his power. He often said, "I will ask the party to decide," and "I will wait for discussions in the Diet (Parliament)." Although the parliamentary cabinet system only means that the leader of a majority party becomes the Prime Minster, Mr. Mori never showed his desire to play a leadership role, and very few regarded him as a leader in the first place. Furthermore, his selection as the Prime Minister was done behind closed doors. As a result, the public became very dissatisfied, and voiced their desire for a Prime Minister with strong leadership and clear messages.

Mr. Koizumi responded to this public sentiment, and came into power. He formed a unique cabinet free of factional politics. Although some say that he only formed a new faction, it may be permissible to use small factions to check a dominant factional force. Although his cabinet appointments are less than perfect--in particular, his selection of Senior Vice Ministers seems mediocre--Mr. Koizumi has succeeded in forming a cabinet that he can control at his will.

The second point for realizing the central role of the Prime Minister in politics is to avoid intervention by the party; that is, to establish the leadership of the Prime Minister over the party. This is not easy, however. In the case of the LDP, the decision making body is the General Council (Sohmu-kai), which is dominated by many anti-Koizumi faction members, including former Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka. For the time being, they don't want to be viewed as villains against the popular Prime Minister, and probably will try to avoid any overt confrontation until the Lower House elections. After the elections, however, they are likely to sabotage the Koizumi administration.

Relationship among Politicians, Bureaucrats and Businesses

An important point is that it is necessary to restructure the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats in order to establish political leadership. In Britain, for example, the voice of the party can only be heard by the government through cabinet ministers, and no politicians other than cabinet ministers are permitted to contact bureaucrats. Following such an example, Japan should, in principle, prohibit not only individual politicians but also parties to contact bureaucrats by disregarding the administration.

Furthermore, the support basis for the LDP needs to be reformed. The LDP has long protected the interests of various businesses, and has received political support from those protected businesses. As a result, the LDP could not ignore business interests, and failed to make bold policy decisions due to their vested interests. One of those examples is the special taxes for road construction in the budget. It is necessary to restructure those special revenue sources for political and business interests.

It also is important to reform the special interest structure from the viewpoint of normalizing the relationship between the incumbent and opposition parties. We must change the system in which those organizations that are protected by the government are supporting a particular party. What Japan needs is strong government as well as fair elections. Democracy should mean that people delegate their power for a certain period of time, and express their evaluation in the elections. In order to realize fair elections, we must eliminate the political structure based on special interests.

The Role of the Opposition Parties

The Koizumi administration has a number of weaknesses. In particular, Foreign Minister Tanaka could be a problem. Right after Ms. Tanaka was appointed as Foreign Minister she made a series of pro-Beijing remarks on Japan's textbook issue and ex-Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui's visa issue, and those remarks were obviously unprepared and unnecessary. Furthermore, she could not give reasonable and consistent reasons for her failing to meet Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage from the U.S.

Although her intention to reform the Foreign Ministry is understandable and her intervention in the Ministry's personnel appointments may be necessary, she is making a mistake in justifying and isolating herself from most of the bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry. That only hurts Japanese diplomacy, Japanese bureaucracy, Ms. Tanaka herself, and the Koizumi administration as well.

Finance Minister Shiokawa also has made careless remarks regarding secret intelligence funds for Prime Minister's Office. Although the Koizumi administration is extremely popular for now, it is the opposition's duty to check the carelessness and inconsistencies of various statements by cabinet members. Repeated criticisms might make a change some day.

Now is the time when the opposition has courage to criticize the Koizumi administration. The Koizumi administration was born because the LDP feared that they might well be defeated by the opposition in the upcoming elections. Prime Minister Koizumi does not have a solid foundation within the party. He can only push his reform plan by making use of the tension between the incumbent and the opposition. If the opposition parties become too weak, conservative members within the LDP would easily be able to stop the kind of reform pushed by Mr. Koizumi. Then the whole reform process might be halted with no significant opposition power left in Japan. We must not forget that Mr. Koizumi's reform has a chance to succeed only if there is pressure from the opposition.

(This essay is an English translation of Prof. Kitaoka's original paper, which appeared in "Intellectual Cabinet, No. 49," published by the Tokyo Foundation).

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