Koizumi may call early polls in face of waning popularity

Tom Clifford

Amid plunging popularity ratings, the first hint that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is considering going to the polls early emerged yesterday from the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

When Mr Koizumi took office in April last year his approval rating stood at 92 per cent. Last week his rating had slipped to 35 per cent. While not exactly in the despairing state of his predecessor Yoshiro Mori's eight per cent, his political fortunes do seem becalmed.

Against this backdrop Taku Yamasaki, the LDP's secretary-general, refused to rule out the possibility of an early election - possibly after a cabinet reshuffle in September. When asked directly during a television interview if Mr Koizumi would dissolve the House of Representatives and call an early election, Mr Yamasaki replied that the Prime Minister was known to make 'unexpected decisions suddenly'. An election does not have to be called until May 2004.

Mr Koizumi does not hide his frustration at opposition from within his own party to his reform plans.

Last week he vowed to carry out promised reforms to the postal services and did not mince his words. 'I will not make revisions . . . if these bills are scrapped it will come down to a question of whether the LDP will crush the Koizumi cabinet or the cabinet will crush the party.' The words of a man who knows only too well that his enemies are within his own ranks.

Mr Koizumi's agenda includes slashing public spending, reform of financial institutions and the eradication of a political culture that allows politicians to develop a cosy relationship with big business. Because the LDP has been in power for all but 18 months of the past 50 years, his potential reforms naturally target senior politicians within the LDP's factions.

If one single incident lost Mr Koizumi widespread public support it was when he caved in to pressure from conservative elements within the LDP and sacked his popular reformist foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, in January. The feeling in Japan today is that Mr Koizumi is still too strong to be toppled and no faction leader from the LDP is yet powerful enough to take over.

It would make sense for him to go to the country before his support weakens further.