Elvis Has Left The Building

Junichiro Koizumi, the most dynamic, popular and idiosyncratic prime minister in recent Japanese history, will leave behind an impressive record of achievements when he relinquishes power to his successor later this month. He also leaves behind an equally daunting number of questions about the future of Japan.

Koizumi's biggest achievement over the five and a half years he has held office was to spark a new sense of optimism in the people, after more than a decade when nothing seemed to go right. He came into power with an upbeat message: embrace market reforms, stop wasteful government spending, take risks. And he delivered that call to arms in a plain-spoken way that had no precedent in Japan.

Koizumi was very popular, but, in an important sense, he was not a populist. He never pandered to public opinion. He told the public that strong reform medicine would revive the country, and they believed him. With his long hair, Elvis Presley impersonations and a ruthless attitude toward those in his own Liberal Democratic Party who dared to oppose his program, Koizumi struck a chord with a public sick of politics as usual.

The Japanese embraced their "cool" prime minister, and Koizumi used that public backing to force recalcitrant LDP members to accept policies anathema to party traditions. In his first year in office, he cut spending on public works by 10 percent, and he continued to reduce it by more than 3 percent a year after that. He forced the privatization of the postal system, which ran the country's largest bank and insurance company. A master of political theater, he called a snap parliamentary election when LDP veterans balked at adopting that privatization. He purged powerful faction bosses and prime-ministerial hopefuls who opposed him, running new candidates, including many women (quickly dubbed the "assassins"), against them. The public was ambivalent about postal reform until Koizumi threw down the gauntlet. But wowed by his take-no-prisoners approach, voters gave the LDP the biggest victory it had seen in decades.

In Japanese politics and government, consensus means a lot. It's a principle the prime minister has been expected to respect, and it is painstakingly arrived at by mostly informal and opaque negotiations among party leaders, bureaucrats and key interest groups. But the term "consensus politics" is not in Koizumi's vocabulary. He introduced a new, more presidential style of decision making. He was determined to establish strong executive authority over the bureaucracy. He yanked policymaking away from the LDP and the line ministries and instead concentrated it in the prime minister's office.

He kept faction bosses out of the cabinet. He turned to an economist, Heizo Takenaka, rather than a politician, to be his chief economic minister. He himself chaired a new Economic and Fiscal Policy Council, and, working through Takenaka, he used the council to set guidelines for budget allocations, to constrain the bureaucracy and to determine legislative priorities. Faced with deepening deflation, growing unemployment, corporate bankruptcies and a financial system in crisis, the public bought his mantra of "no economic growth without structural reform," and the LDP did not know how to oppose it.

But things are different now. Growth has rebounded, the labor market has tightened, profitability at major corporations is at historically high levels. "No continuation of growth without further structural reform" does not quite have the zing of the old Koizumi slogan, especially now when the media and LDP elders complain that market reforms have eroded the vaunted equality of Japanese society, producing large income gaps.

The next prime minister is not going to be as popular as Koizumi has been, and he will be confronted by LDP leaders determined to reassert their power now that Koizumi is gone. The danger is that he will be tempted to resort to populism in order to shore up his popularity, especially by rallying Japanese nationalism against neighboring countries portrayed as trying to push Japan around. He is going to come under intense pressure to increase spending on public works and other programs.

Under Koizumi, fundamental social change ripped the pillars out from under the old political system. And he, with his natural charisma, took advantage. He is truly a unique figure--but his time in the spotlight may come to be seen as an important and entertaining intermission in Japan's political history.