Japan Parliament rejects no-confidence motion against Cabinet member

February 5, 2002 The Associated Press by Joji Sakurai
Japan's ruling coalition defeated a no-confidence motion brought against the agriculture minister on Tuesday, a bittersweet victory for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who suddenly looks vulnerable with his popularity in tatters.

The motion against Tsutomu Takebe, whose handling of the nation's mad cow crisis has been widely criticized, was largely symbolic as the ruling parties had enough votes to quash it.

More worrying for Koizumi was that the motion came forward at all. He swept to power last April as a self-styled "lionheart" who promised to overhaul the status quo, and quickly established himself as one of Japan's most popular leaders in decades. To drag Japan's economy out of recession, he proposed reforms to rein in the crushing public debt, privatize government agencies and dismantle regulatory barriers to competition. He also promised to end backroom politics.

But the prime minister saw his popularity plummet after he abruptly dismissed Makiko Tanaka as his top diplomat last week. His position was further shaken by the first no-confidence motion against a member of the Koizumi Cabinet.

The move showed a concerted effort by the sponsors of the bill - the conservative Liberals, the centrist Democrats, and the Socialist and Communist parties - to capitalize on Koizumi's plunging public support.

Japan's media commentators are already saying that Tanaka's dismissal raises leadership questions about Koizumi that may eventually cost him his job.

Parliamentary spokeswoman Yasue Eto said the combined votes of the ruling parties were enough to defeat the no-confidence motion.

Observers have long said that the key to his chances of defeating entrenched interests within his own party and enacting reforms is his popularity. But newspaper polls this week show his approval rating falling from above 70 percent last month to about 50 percent now.

"As an administration the Koizumi administration may last a while longer, but the reforms are over," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst with UBS Warburg.

"Makiko Tanaka was one of the engines of his high public support, but you can't fly on only one engine," Okazaki said. He added that her dismissal indicates anti-reform forces in Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party may now be calling the shots.

Now free from the constraints of the Cabinet, Tanaka wasted no time Monday in transforming herself from Koizumi ally into critic.

"In order to realize the prime minister's pledges made in the speech, there first is a need for political reform," she said after Koizumi's speech.

Even the leader of the biggest of Koizumi's three-member ruling coalition criticized the prime minister's handling of the Tanaka affair.

"They (the public) want to know on what grounds the premier replaced her," Kyodo News agency quoted New Komeito Party leader Takenori Kanzaki as saying. "He should have elaborated about his attempt to reform the Foreign Ministry through the personnel reshuffle."

Kanzaki and the leader of the Conservative Party, the other coalition partner, reiterated their support for Koizumi but urged him to speed up reforms, Kyodo reported.

As if to underline his deepening isolation, Koizumi ended a major policy speech by quoting a poem the late Emperor Hirohito composed months after Japan's defeat in World War II: "Undaunted stands the pine tree in mounting snowdrifts."

The image was meant to encourage Japan to be resilient in tough economic times, but it came across more as a reminder of the lonely political storm Koizumi himself faces in the months to come.

The no-confidence motion accused Takebe of trying to hide the seriousness of Japan's mad cow disease outbreak and taking a cavalier attitude to investigating its cause.

"He has tried to protect top Farm Ministry officials who bear serious responsibility and has been putting a lid on trying to discover the truth," said a text of the motion faxed by the Democratic Party to The Associated Press.

"Dismissing him is a minimum step in restoring public trust in the Agriculture Ministry."

Japan is the only country in Asia with confirmed cases of mad cow disease, which wastes cows' brains and is believed to be linked to a deadly human variant.

The motion has also been seen as a veiled criticism of Tanaka's dismissal, raising the implicit question of why the reform-minded foreign minister had to go when Takebe has been accused of more serious indiscretions.

Koizumi fired Tanaka because of a widely publicized dispute she had with ministry officials and a powerful ruling party lawmaker stemming from last month's international aid conference for Afghanistan held here.

The first woman to become foreign minister, Tanaka had won a large following with voters for her straight-talking style and promises to clean up corruption in government.

According to a poll published Monday in the Asahi, a national newspaper, support for the Koizumi's Cabinet dropped to 49 percent from 72 percent in a similar poll it conducted last month. It was the lowest approval rating for Koizumi in an Asahi poll since he took office.

Another major daily, the Mainichi, said Koizumi's approval rate fell to 53 percent, a drop of 24 percentage points from January. The newspapers did not give a margin of error for the polls.

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