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August 29, 2005

Is Koizumi a 'Conviction Politician'?

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Vow to reform LDP means he intends to reform Japanese society itself

Koizumi is much like Thatcher, who did not seek consensus, instead inviting people to follow her if they believed in her vision.

Margaret Thatcher once described herself as a conviction politician, uncompromising and always sticking to principles and values she believed in. She said she would not seek consensus, but asked people to join her if they believed in her vision. A political leader of her type would be treated as a black sheep and find it difficult to progress in Japanese politics.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appears proving a rare exception in this regard, and the Japanese electorate appears to be recognizing that. For his characteristically forceful way of pushing his agenda, Koizumi is now increasingly hated as a "dictator" by many members in his own party, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. His relentless rejection of the rules, practices and procedures that have governed the LDP for decades has alienated him as an odd man out in the party.

Given this, it is remarkable that he has managed to remain politically afloat constantly fighting opposing forces within his own party while backed by persistently high popular support for more than four years. When he dissolved the lower house of the Diet and called a snap election after the defeat in the upper house of the postal privatization bills, the culmination of his forceful, uncompromising way of politics, his approval rating even soared in various opinion polls.


What does the electorate see and look for in this politician? Are they really anticipating a Thatcher-type leader? It could be.

Koizumi's obsession with the postal system reform has long been a well-known fact. It is said to have started when he was a junior minister of finance in the late 1970s. At that time, the postal savings system had its own interest-rate setting power independent of the Bank of Japan and the Ministry of Finance, distorting the nation's financial system. But Koizumi's interest in the matter was scarcely taken seriously and was brushed aside as a strange hobby of an odd man.

When he took power, the issue revived as an important part of his political agenda. The problem, however, is that he owes a fuller explanation to the nation of why postal privatization was set out as a centerpiece of his reform agenda, although news media, including all major daily newspapers, argue for its significance.

If Koizumi wants to prove himself to be a conviction politician on his reform agenda, he still needs to show that he has the intellectual capacity and sincerity to convince people of the necessity of reform in general.

Koizumi is credited with his work of destroying the old system of the LDP, and in that sense he is certainly an unprecedented leader of the party. More importantly, he is different from his predecessors in ideological inclination.

He is perhaps the first prime minister who believes in small government and intends to purge the nation's political and economic system of essentially "socialistic" or hopelessly bureaucratic elements under which conservative politicians and bureaucrats have joined hands to their own benefit and those of the special interests or localities they serve. Koizumi's reform agenda boils down to redressing this endemic ill and prevent it from inflicting an eventual collapse on the nation.

As is becoming increasingly clear to people, the last remaining sector that needs an overhaul and restructuring is the government or public sector. It is all too clear that the emergence of the Japanese economy from the prolonged post-bubble slump has been made possible by the private sector's own restructuring efforts, without drawing on public funds. Unlike his predecessors, Koizumi has held back public works investment, which in the past was habitually implemented in a large amount in the hope of shoring up the economy, but failed to accomplish the purpose, leaving snowballing public debt.

Welfare state

Post-World War II Japan has been largely devoid of a philosophy of fiscal conservatism. In that sense, this country is dominated by liberalism to the extent of being viewed as a socialistic welfare society. When he declared, upon assuming office four years ago, that he wanted to break down the LDP, his own party, he meant he intended to break down the Japanese system, which the LDP built, supported and has benefited from. The LDP has been incarnation of the postwar Japanese system itself.

But in this world of globalization and competition with China, Japanese people appear to finally be starting to sense that that would no longer do. Koizumi is riding a wave of this popular realization.

It is interesting to note that despite Koizumi's insistence that the forthcoming election is intended as a referendum exclusively on the issue of postal privatization, voters give quite a low priority to that matter, but still support his resolution of the lower house and the resultant election. People may be expecting to give Koizumi more chances to push his reform agenda beyond postal reform. The postal privatization is certainly related to the nation's problematical fiscal system and the government system as a whole. If so, it is essential to give detailed and easy-to-understand explanation for Koizumi to succeed in the forthcoming general elections on Sept. 11.

This may mean people are endorsing Koizumi's intention to clean up the LDP and looking for a realignment of the political world as a whole, including opposition parties, to better prepare for necessary changes in the political system.

The question is whether Koizumi really is capable of living up to his own ambition or popular expectation of it. Skeptics say he is no more than a narrow-sighted demagogue. His failure to provide detailed explanations on any issue, including his most important project of postal privatization and the Yasukuni Shrine visits, in order to convince the electorate seems to be his major shortcoming. If he enjoys high popular approval despite this, or rather because of it, he could be dangerous.

If Koizumi is to be credited with being a genuine conviction politician, he needs to show the intellectual and philosophical foundation of his convictions as Thatcher said she built by devoting herself to reading such authors as Friedrich A. Hayek since she was young.

(Originally appeared in the April 18, 2005 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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