Lighting a Fuse; with His Party in Turmoil, Junichiro Koizumi Sets the Stage for an Epic Election That Could Transform the Ruling LDP

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Caryl (With Hideko Takayama and Kay Itoi)

In the end it all came down to a moment of near absurdity between two of the most powerful men in Japan. On the evening of Aug. 6, Yoshiro Mori, a senior parliamentary leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, sweating in the muggy summer heat, arrived for a parley at the residence of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The two men had urgent business to discuss--namely, whether the upper house of Parliament, the Diet, would pass crucial legislation approving the privatization of Japan Post, the vast public corporation whose reform Koizumi has declared the make-or-break issue of his government.

Mori, a former prime minister himself, was bringing bad news. The votes weren't there, he explained, and he pleaded with Koizumi to back away from his threat to call a snap election if the privatization bills failed to pass. But Koizumi held his ground. If the legislators couldn't make it happen, he said, he had no choice but to place the issue before the voters. "You are more than a weirdo!" Mori exclaimed. "That's me and I can't help it," Koizumi replied. Afterward Mori complained to the press that the bachelor prime minister had made the barest show of hospitality during their meeting--"canned beer, shriveled cheese and salmon."

Take it or leave it: that was Koizumi's message to the "forces of resistance," his label for the party conservatives who, as predicted, proceeded to scuttle his plans for restructuring Japan Post--a move experts assert would help revitalize the country's economy over the long term. Two days after his chat with Mori, upper-house legislators scotched the bills by a vote of 125 to 108. Those voting against included 22 members of Koizumi's own party, including several former cabinet ministers. Afterward Koizumi dissolved the lower house, paving the way for what will be a watershed election on Sept. 11. A lot more is at stake than the fate of the state-run postal service. If Koizumi's pro-reform forces win, the result could be a modernized LDP shorn of its old-crony politics and dependence on vested interests. If he loses, his defeat will almost certainly mark a fundamental realignment in Japanese politics: the end of the LDP's half century of hegemony over the political landscape--in the very year that the party is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary. "This could be the real beginning of the end of LDP dominance," says Masayuki Tadokoro of Keio University. "As things stand now, it's already clear that the old guard is finished."

The death of the LDP has been predicted before. But this time a great deal is different. Now, for the first time in the postwar period, there's a genuine competitor prepared to challenge the LDP on its own centrist turf--the upstart Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), whose Diet members joined with LDP dinosaurs to defeat the bills. Environment Minister Yuriko Koike, a Koizumi loyalist who will be running for a seat in the coming election, says that the election will be a crucial test of "whether Japan has given up on reform or wants to proceed with the process."

Koizumi is in some ways a revolutionary leader, the Boris Yeltsin of Japan--determined to undermine his own party's worst habits and its exclusive claim on power. Indeed, he's often said that one of his primary aims is the "destruction" of the LDP--a vow he reiterated the day he dissolved the lower house. "I really didn't think he'd do it," one LDP Diet member told NEWSWEEK. "I thought it was a bluff." Now that he's made good on his threat, some commentators are describing the move as "political suicide," since the widening split in the ruling party could fatally weaken its efforts to wrest the election from the opposition.

But Koizumi doesn't seem too bothered. In fact he's pushing ahead with plans to purge the rebels--the 37 anti-reform LDP members who voted against the privatization bills in the lower house on July 5. …