There can be no stalling next time, Mr Koizumi

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 12:00am

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is the country's most popular political leader in recent memory. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoys a lead going into the two weeks of campaigning before the November 9 parliamentary elections.

But the LDP also has the burden of an unfinished reform agenda, from privatising publicly owned postal and highway firms to ridding Japan's banking system of its crippling level of bad debt. Add to this the recent promises to put a badly under-funded pension system on a sounder footing and to reform Japan's constitution so it can send troops to conflict zones such as Iraq, and it becomes clear that Mr Koizumi has set some ambitious targets for himself and the LDP.

The trouble with Mr Koizumi is that he talks a good game on structural reforms, but has been able to achieve very little in his 2.5 years in office. Bolder plans, including the all-important banking reform, more often than not have been stymied by his unwillingness to stand up to the bureaucracy, domestic industrial interests and conservatives in his own party. Most recently, Mr Koizumi failed to sign a free-trade agreement with Mexico because of Japan's refusal to drop tariffs on orange juice imports.

The world's second-largest economy is starting to grow again, after more than a decade of deflation, corporate stagnation and general gloom - a period marked by several false starts at recovery. The current optimism is largely based on renewed activity in Japan's biggest export markets, especially in China, and comes in spite of the Koizumi government's policies, not because of them. Nonetheless, the economic turnaround and the LDP's continued pledges of change may be enough to secure the party the seats it needs to stay in power.

Mr Koizumi earlier this autumn overcame the anti-reform camp in the LDP in order to be re-elected as head of the party. If the voters now give his colleagues and the LDP a mandate based on their promises to follow through on long-delayed measures, there will really be no excuse for further stalling.

Whatever mandate Mr Koizumi wins could be a slim one, and it could come with an expiry date. An opposition coalition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is also running on a reform agenda, with emphasis on strengthening the pension system, fighting crime and opposing constitutional changes that would allow more aggressive military development.

Given Mr Koizumi's lacklustre record, the DPJ may be able to add to the 128 seats it has in the 480-seat legislature. And while DPJ may not have the wherewithal to challenge the LDP for national leadership this year, it may be in a position to do so in the next elections, especially if Mr Koizumi proves again that he lacks the resolve to put Japan's economy in order.