Opposition challenges Koizumi to a US-style TV debate
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Overshadowed by so-called assassins and hitmen, and down in the opinion polls with a little more than two weeks to election day, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Katsuya Okada yesterday challenged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a US-style, one-on-one televised debate.
'The inner strife within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is strange because it should be causing problems for Mr Koizumi, but instead he has turned it around and used it in his favour,' said Mr Okada.
'He is using it as a tactic in the battle between the LDP and the DPJ and focusing on these 'assassins', but this election is about the future of Japan.
'Mr Koizumi is manipulating the media and avoiding debate on the specific issues,' he said. 'That's why I want to have the debate on policies - like we should be having - because at the moment it's an election without the issues.'
Mr Okada has a valid point. From the outset, Mr Koizumi has effectively turned the election into a referendum on whether the public supports his structural reform efforts, particularly privatisation of the post office, and the Japanese media has given great play to his efforts to rid the LDP of those who oppose him.
'Assassins' chosen for their public appeal and loyalty to Mr Koizumi have been parachuted into the constituencies of rebel members of the party, shifting the spotlight from the public-policy facts. By grabbing the headlines, Mr Koizumi is also grabbing the voters. According to the latest polls, the LDP's support rate is hovering just below 50 per cent, more than double that of the DPJ.
Those figures leave Mr Okada with little choice but to go on the offensive, claiming that Japan faces a 'crisis of democracy'.
'When I look at what he has achieved to date in terms of reforms, I'm very sceptical of his accomplishments,' he said, suggesting that efforts to bring down spending on road construction, fiscal reforms and devolution of power to the regions have all come up short.
For the DPJ, the priority must be to fully reform a national pension system that is close to becoming unsustainable due to the decline in the working population, as well as encouraging more people to have children by providing child-care allowances, said Mr Okada.
In terms of foreign policy, Mr Okada wants better relations with Asia, particularly immediate neighbours China and South Korea, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for Japan, fewer US troops in Okinawa and the withdrawal of Japan's Self-Defence Forces from Iraq.
And while the majority of his proposals will be welcomed by the public, the problem remains getting the message across. Mr Okada is, however, putting on a brave face.
'I have visited many constituencies and I have been struck by the fact that the people are very interested in this election,' he said. ' I hope that will grow into enthusiasm for the DPJ.'