Support for Japanese leader plunges

February 5, 2002 St. Petersburg Times
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's hold on power looked increasingly precarious Monday: His public support plummeted after his firing of the foreign minister, and an emboldened opposition submitted a no-confidence motion in Parliament.

Koizumi was defensive Monday in his first major policy speech of the year, opening with an allusion to his falling popularity since he dismissed Makiko Tanaka as his top diplomat last week.

"With support for my government falling there have been fears that I might backtrack on reform, but my determination to push through reforms will not loosen," he said. The lawmakers' tepid applause contrasted with the usual uproarious welcome he has enjoyed in the legislature. Koizumi took office in April promising to overhaul the status quo. He 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.

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 polls show his approval rating falling from above 70 percent last month to 50 percent.

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

"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 be calling the shots.

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.

As if to underline his deepening isolation, Koizumi ended Monday's 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.

Japan's four main opposition parties submitted a no-confidence motion in Parliament against Koizumi's agriculture minister, accusing him of mishandling an outbreak of mad cow disease.

The motion is largely symbolic, since the ruling coalition has enough votes to defeat it. But it was a clear sign that the opposition senses it has new life.

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