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Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Koizumi's power appears to be slipping

Prime minister was snubbed three times in trying to fill Cabinet post


Staff writer

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has gone from bypassing his party's power brokers to pleading with them -- unsuccessfully.

News photo
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attends a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The change in tactics, as well as the result, indicates that his clout within the Liberal Democratic Party is on the wane.

That's the widespread view in Nagata-cho, Japan's political epicenter, now that Koizumi has tabbed Yoshiyuki Kamei, as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

Kamei was formally appointed to the post Tuesday, succeeding Tadamori Oshima, who resigned a day earlier over a series of money-related scandals involving his secretaries.

In the early days of his administration, Koizumi claimed he would "break up the old structure" of the LDP, and went around powerful leaders of factional groups within his party to directly select members of his Cabinet.

This marked a clear departure from the LDP's tradition in which almost everything was determined based on the balance of power between party factions. A prime minister first had to ask leaders of each faction to submit a list of candidates for ministerial posts, then select his Cabinet members from among them.

Koizumi's management style, intended to deprive factional leaders of their source of power, was dubbed "single-rod fishing" by members of the factions he bypassed.

But in selecting a successor to Oshima, Koizumi resorted to sounding out faction leaders.

"That's because I have been criticized for acting arbitrarily without consulting (the faction leaders)," Koizumi said early Tuesday after naming Kamei, a former transport minister, as farm minister.

Koizumi admitted that he sought cooperation from leaders of rival factions in his bid to find an appropriate man to take over from Oshima.

He failed to get it.

Oshima submitted a letter of resignation to the prime minister around 1 p.m. Monday. But it was only shortly before midnight that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda was able to announce Kamei as Oshima's successor.

LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki confirmed that Koizumi had approached at least three other candidates with expertise on farm policy issues before eventually settling on Kamei. They were:

Kosuke Hori, a former education minister and a member of the party's biggest faction, led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Shoichi Nakagawa, a former farm minister and a member of another faction led jointly by party elders Takami Eto and Shizuka Kamei, one of the most vocal critics of the Koizumi administration.

Naoto Kitamura, senior vice farm minister who belongs to a faction led by Mitsuo Horiuchi, chairman of the party's Executive Council.

Koizumi may have been trying to beef up the power base of his Cabinet by seeking cooperation from rival LDP factions, which are becoming increasingly critical of Koizumi for his reluctance to let the government spend its way out of the economic slump.

He also reportedly wanted somebody who is well-versed in farm issues now that agricultural trade tops the agenda of World Trade Organization negotiations.

After being snubbed by his top three choices, the prime minister had no choice but to depend on Yamasaki, his longtime ally within the party. Upon his request, Yamasaki chose Kamei, who belongs to Yamasaki's own faction.

"Kamei has worked as my right-hand man as chief of the finance bureau (of the LDP)," Yamasaki said. "Losing him is a severe blow, but it can't be helped for the sake of the state."

Diet-watchers say Koizumi's about-face reflects his weakened power base.

Supported by unprecedentedly high public approval ratings in his early days, Koizumi was able to suppress complaints from LDP elders by threatening to "break up" the party and form an alliance with opposition forces.

But with his public support nearly halved, Koizumi is facing harsh attacks from the opposition camp as well as from many coalition lawmakers, all calling on him to change the course of his economic policies.

"I think it's become clear that Koizumi's leadership has been considerably diminished," said Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of politics at Hokkaido University.

Yamaguchi said that Oshima's resignation and the ensuing confusion may signal the beginning of the end to Koizumi's battered administration.

"It's something close to a terminal symptom," Yamaguchi said, adding that the Koizumi administration is only managing to keep its head above water because people's attention is focused on the ongoing war in Iraq.



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The Japan Times

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