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Jewish World Review August 13, 2001 / 24 Menachem-Av 5761

Bill Schneider

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Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized -- Tokyo--- How many of the 25 elected leaders of Japan since World War II can you name? For nearly 50 years, Japan has been governed by a faceless system. Now it's governed by a leader. One who sees it as his mission to take on that system. With latest election, Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized.

Since April, Japan has had a new prime minister with extremely high popularity ratings and a bold economic reform program. The question was, could Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi transfer his personal popularity to his party? On Sunday, Japanese voters gave their answer: yes. Now there's another question: can Koizumi transfer his personal popularity to his reform program? That remains to be seen.

What happened in Japan has been happening all over the world. In country after country, leaders have replaced political parties with their own personal followings. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did that in the United States. Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin did it in Russia. Tony Blair did it in Great Britain. Silvio Berlusconi did it this year in Italy.

Why is this happening? Because of television. The power of these leaders is essentially personal. Voters support them, not their party or ideology. They don't need a party or ideology. They have television. Television allows direct, personal communication between politicians and voters. It's a two-way process: politicians talk to the voters through television. Voters talk back to the politicians through polls.

Koizumi's greatest skill is his ability to communiate with the voters on television. ``He speaks as your father would, making many feel a strong affinity toward him,'' a prominent Japanese television producer told The Asahi Shimbun.

Japan has been in an economic slump for the past eleven years. The Japanese call the 1990s ``the Lost Decade.'' Koizumi offered a way for the longstanding incumbent party to accomplish the unlikely feat of capturing the country's powerful desire for change.

Koizumi has proposed a sweeping reform agenda that would overturn all the the assumptions that have governed Japanese politics since the 1950s. ``Reform without sacred cows,'' he calls it. It is something like the reforms made by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain: curtail public spending, downsize government, reduce public debt and privatize public services.

Talk to the political establishment here and you will find a lot of cynicism about Koizumi's reforms. His program faces serious and immediate barriers.

The Japanese economy is already in recession, the fourth recession in the past decade. Koizumi says quite frankly that his program will makes things worse for two or three years. He wants the banks to get rid of a mountain of bad debt, which will force a lot of small and medium-sized businesses into bankruptcy and drive unemployment up to six or seven percent -- unheard of in Japan. His plan to cut wasteful public subsidies to rural areas will cause deep distress. The result will be immense political pressure to pump up public spending -- and undo his reforms.

Moreover, the U.S. economy in a slump. That will make it much tougher for Japanese business to recover. In fact, there is a lot of concern in Japan that U.S. businesses will rush into to buy bankrupt Japanese companies. ``Japan could become the world center of trade in distressed assets,'' one economist warned.

Moreover, Koizumi is like to face considerable opposition in his own party. Huge and powerful interest groups, like the construction industry which thrives on public subsidies, will try to thwart Koizumi's reforms. What does Koizumi have to fight them with?

His popularity. But will the polls be enough? Koizumi is already threatening that if his enemies try to thwart him, he will dissolve the lower house of parliament and force his critics to face the voters. He even threatens to split the party. ``If the LDP tries to destroy my reforms, I will destroy the LDP,'' he warns -- an extraordinary threat coming from a prime minister.

Koizumi's style of personal leadership could work in the U.S., where public opinion is a real source of power. But public opinion counts for much less in Japan, which is less of a plebiscitary democracy. It is, however, a country that goes for short-lived fads and ``crazes.'' Who can rely on public opinion when, just in the course of this year, support for the prime minister went from 7 to 80 percent? The conventional wisdom in political circles is, ``This, too, shall pass.''

Koizumi's style is very un-Japanese -- clear, frank and outspoken. He is an independent and a maverick in a country that prizes conformity. He cultivates an ``outsider'' appeal, even though he is a third-generation politician. Most important, he's clean. No gossip, no stories, no hint of scandal. That's news in a country that has been rocked by financial scandals for ten years.

Koizumi is not a consensus politician. He is a straight talker. Sound familiar? He's the Japanese version of John McCain, the most popular figure in American politics -- a maverick, an outsider, a man who takes on the special interests and challenges his own party. Imagine if John McCain were President of the United States. He would have a mandate from the people for his bold and unconventional ideas to change the system. Meanwhile, the political insiders and the special interests would be lying in wait for him. Just as they are for Koizumi in Japan.

To comment on JWR contributor William Schneider's column, please click here.

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© 2001, William Schneider