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Friday, Sept. 19, 2003

Old political drum beats on

LONDON -- "Seen it all before" and "the more it changes the more it remains the same" are phrases that immediately spring to the mind of the foreign observer of Japanese politics in the runup to Saturday's election of the president of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Japanese reporters whose job it is to follow the maneuvers of the different personalities and factions may express fascination with the intrigues and jealousies that constitute pre-election politics, but there are not many foreign journalists who attempt to follow the developments in any detail.

Political observers in foreign embassies desirous of keeping their capitals informed of the likely outcome must perforce study the various machinations. The outcome of the election will be important for the future course of Japanese politics and will have implications for Japan's role on the international scene and for the development of the Japanese economy.

The overall performance of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government has been disappointing, but it can claim some significant achievements. Nonperforming loans have not been eradicated, but there is much greater recognition today than in the past of the dangers they pose to the financial system. Banks have been forced to take unpalatable measures. The strength of their opposition to measures proposed by Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka shows that his proposals are on the mark. Deregulation has been slow and the development of special zones that would derogate certain controls from the central government has made only limited progress, but these issues have now come very much to the fore.

Privatization of postal services and the reform of the highways agency have been emasculated, but the selfish nature of the opposition to these measures has been exposed.

In foreign policy, Koizumi has managed to keep relations with the United States on an even keel despite U.S. concerns about Japanese moves to prevent the yen from strengthening. His efforts to reform the processes for dealing with emergencies and to enable the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to help in Iraq in due course have brought greater realism to Japanese defense policies.

Much still remains to be done. Even if the stock market has improved amid signs of a recovery in economic growth, the Japanese economy has not yet escaped deflation, and Japan's national debt continues to rise. The debt can still be financed as Japanese savings remain high, but interest rates have risen and the burden of meeting future costs will increase.

If we criticize Koizumi's government for not doing enough, we need to bear in mind that despite intentions of administrative reform the powers of a Japanese prime minister are circumscribed by the bureaucracy and the political process in Japan. It is not possible for a prime minister in Japan (or even in Britain) to say "do this," especially if legislation and complicated administrative procedures are required to carry out the decision quickly and fully.

Koizumi's rivals in the party were not able to agree on a single candidate to challenge him. If they had been able to do so, his re-election could have been jeopardized. It is difficult for the experts to forecast accurately the voting intentions of the various factions in the Diet. And to prophesy how the 300 LDP representatives outside the Diet will vote is even more problematic.

But Koizumi holds a key card. As prime minister it is his prerogative to decide when to call a general election. If he were not re-elected LDP president, he might well decide to go for a general election in which Japan's political realignment could be radically changed and the LDP split. Some LDP members would probably lose out in such an election. So, on the reasoning that "turkeys don't vote for Christmas," the potential threat by Koizumi to call a general election may strengthen his chances of re-election as LDP president.

Alternatives in the LDP to Koizumi are hardly known outside Japan except perhaps for Masahiko Komura, who served as foreign minister. Shizuka Kamei, a former LDP policy chief, has been vociferous in his opposition to Koizumi's policies, but has no international profile. Takao Fujii is hardly known outside the Diet. The policies that they all appear to espouse do not look likely to help Japan's economic recovery or Japan's image in the world. In foreign policy they would have to start from scratch.

Of course, foreign governments would have to deal with whomever the Japanese selected as their prime minister, but a change at this stage would hardly benefit Japan internationally.

When I asked a senior Japanese businessman visiting London recently about the chances for the Japanese opposition parties, he described them as similar to a flock of crows -- without real leaders but making a lot of noise. If Koizumi is re-elected the LDP leader, the LDP is likely to remain the governing party.

Koizumi will probably be re-elected because no one better appears to be waiting in the wings. The alternative of a cataclysmic change or realignment on the Japanese political scene might be better in the long run for Japan, especially if it led to the real demise of factional politics and significant political reform, such as redrawn constituencies to give more power to urban voters and thus reduce the strength of the LDP's overall support nationwide. The farm vote is an anachronism that leads to Japan's adopting and maintaining protectionist agricultural policies, which increase Japanese living costs and undermine Japan's interest in free trade. The farm vote is like the tail of the dog. The dog should wag the tail.

I fear that the outcome of Saturday's poll may be a messy compromise in which Koizumi will be forced to make concessions to opponents in the party on key policies that will continue to be emasculated, and to give factions more say in Cabinet appointments. This would be unfortunate for Japan.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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