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Monday, May 28, 2001

Junichiro Koizumi: Can stardom become success?

LOS ANGELES -- Quality political leadership is so frequently conspicuous by its absence that even the slightest whiff of its sudden presence can electrify a political region. Is Japan finally experiencing the dynamic quality leadership it deserves? That's the question intriguing Asia.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is now the toast of Tokyo -- and a rising international political star. To be sure, the current Japanese exuberance over the new government of the "personality-plus" Koizumi could well prove to be every bit as irrational as the utter dismissal of Keizo "cold pizza" Obuchi days after he took office two years ago. And while the latter turned out to be Japan's most effective prime minister in years, the former has yet to prove he isn't the biggest political bust since the disastrous reform administration of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993.

Can Koizumi succeed? Maybe. For starters, he has luck on his side -- the good fortune to succeed the most scoffed-at Japanese prime minister in recent memory. And timing is everything: The Japanese polity suddenly seems ready for reform.

He'll get little help from his tradition-encrusted, special-interest-beholden Liberal Democratic Party. But this is where the prime minister's telegenic looks and sound-bite personality -- so suitable for the television age -- are his most formidable assets. Japan, heretofore a highly sophisticated newspaper culture, has been slow to allow television to become the dominant media force in national politics. But, as any American politician can testify, television, properly exploited, can bring long-encrusted institutions, even major political parties, to heel. If Japan's long-dominant but now-teetering LDP won't reform itself from within, maybe Koizumi, riding a huge wave of popular approval, can become the first conquering hero of Japan's new political TV age.

The kind of reform needed to extricate Japan from its current economic morass is complicated. The chore list, largely untended by the governing LDP, will be hard to implement. But if, for instance, this charming bachelor can actually motivate the Diet to privatize the enormous postal-savings system, the Japanese financial system will virtually be revolutionized.

Does TV in Japan today have the power to make or break prime ministers? This awesome mass-communication medium -- along with public-opinion polls -- certainly seems to figure in these days. The bumbling image of hapless Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori undoubtedly contributed to his downfall. By contrast, Koizumi has a modern-day appeal that poured fuel on the groundswell of anti-establishment revolt that so rocked LDP party elders. Japan, it seems, is taking on elements of an American-style democracy, for better and for worse.

This includes a potentially shrinking role for traditional political parties and a growing one for television, political personalities and polls. In fact, public opinion in Asia generally no longer seem to be the deferential sleeping giant of times past.

It seems only a matter of time before public approval pulls the plug on the Abdurrahman Wahid government in Indonesia and installs Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri as that troubled archipelago's leader. Waiting patiently in the wings, this serene woman enjoys broad popularity with the people and may succeed against all expectations.

In Malaysia, increasingly negative public opinion seems also to be weighing down long-entrenched Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The groundswell may even catapult Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, out of jail and back onto the national stage.

Even in China, where there are no national elections and no Gallup polls to rate the performance of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, can there be any doubt that public opinion breathes heavily down the neck of the governing communist elite? It's surely well aware that in this modern age, pragmatic and successful economic policies that lift people's living conditions are a prerequisite for staying in power.

Just a few months ago, Mori had approval ratings in single digits. Those today for Koizumi are up in the 80s. Because Japan fundamentally is a democracy, soaring poll ratings and positive TV images will matter as much as pathetic ones.

Americans, who live under the a system of sloppy polling, big money and craven TV imaging-making, have mixed feelings about the creeping Westernization of Japanese politics. But if this process results in the formulation and implementation of a true reform program for this extraordinary culture, Japan will finally get the political makeover it needs to move forward.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.

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