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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

REFORMS SEEN LAGGING

Koizumi still popular as he marks third anniversary


By REIJI YOSHIDA and TETSUSHI KAJIMOTO
Staff writers

Experiencing ups and downs but being kept afloat by generally strong public approval ratings, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday marked the third anniversary of the inauguration of his administration.

Despite initially lacking solid political clout within his own Liberal Democratic Party, Koizumi has become the sixth-longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan, following Yasuhiro Nakasone, who led the government between 1982 and 1987.

One of the driving forces that has kept the Koizumi Cabinet afloat is the popular approval ratings in media polls. While the numbers are down sharply from the 80 percent to 90 percent seen in the initial phase of his administration, they still stand around 50 percent -- a surprisingly high level for a Japanese prime minister after three years in office.

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University, said one reason for Koizumi's high support ratings is his clever political tactics of advocating policies that nobody can openly oppose.

"Nobody can oppose reducing fiscal deficits or privatization of" inefficient public corporations, he said. "Opposition lawmakers can't have a means of attacking (the prime minister) in cases like these."

Koizumi has been very skillful overlapping the image of his government with the public's vague yearning for "reforms." Public support of Koizumi's Cabinet is a reflection of the general consensus that something must be done about the current situation, rather than support for what Koizumi has actually achieved, Kawakami said.

Economic or administrative reforms normally force people to a swallow bitter pill such as an increase in the consumption tax rate to rebuild the ailing public pension system, Kawakami said.

"So you can say that Koizumi's still-high public support rates are the very proof that the prime minister has not carried out really necessary reforms," he said.

Naoto Kan, chief of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, attributed the longevity of Koizumi's administration to the prime minister's personality. Koizumi is good at making people harbor great expectations about his promises, while being incapable of keeping his word, Kan said.

"The administration has nothing as to what (policy objectives) it wants to drive forward," Kan said. Koizumi "promised to undertake reforms involving the government offices and affiliated special corporations as well as fiscal and tax restructuring when he took office, but none of these have made any progress in the past three years."

Kan said that Koizumi has given in to bureaucrats who resist structural reform, while talking to the public in plain words and keeping expectations high over his promises.

Koizumi has been aided by emerging signs of a much-awaited recovery in Japan's economy.

A number of anti-Koizumi LDP lawmakers have kept a low profile in recent months amid growing indications that the economy has started picking up without massive public work spending, as called for by Koizumi's opponents.

"I believe that the LDP has come to realize my reform policy course is the right track," Koizumi said in an interview last week.

Takenori Kanzaki, head of New Komeito, the ruling coalition partner of Koizumi's LDP, said Monday, "Although there are various criticism (against the Koizumi administration), I understand that it is making progress in reform."

But many economists and businessmen attribute the recovery to what the government has not done -- such as not expanding inefficient public works spending and thereby further deteriorating the government's fiscal health.

"The fact that the government has not done unnecessary things has (re)invigorated the private sector," Shotaro Watanabe, vice chairman and president of Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), told a news conference earlier this month.

The current recovery has been led mainly by export industries and strong demand in China. These have few direct connections with government reform efforts in Japan, economists say.

"Reforms have started, but without further efforts to promote them, (Koizumi) could end up betraying our expectations," Watanabe said.



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