Just imagine if the U.S. economic slowdown had been going on for a decade amid widespread government mismanagement and corruption, that U.S. banks were staggering under bad debts and the stock market kept testing 20-year lows, that the country was wracked with a decade of rising unemployment, miniscule growth and ballooning federal deficits.
Now imagine John McCain had won the 2000 election.
Junichiro Koizumi is a career politician and a third-generation LDP man, the grandson of a former head of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and a former minister of Health and Welfare under the man he beat out in this election, Ryutaro Hashimoto. Yet Koizumi ran for prime minister in 1995 without support from the party faithful. He has wavy hair, fiery rhetoric, an ex-wife not common in Japanese politics and what seems to be a genuine passion for just the kind of free-market, tough-medicine reforms that Japan desperately needs after ten years in the economic dumps.
"He won because he was a maverick," says LDP lawmaker Nobuteru Ishihara. "People are suspicious of those who represent vested interests, and the LDP members felt the same way."
The LDP has to say that, in public. The party that has had a near-exclusive hold on power since 1955 is in serious trouble after a string of prime ministers culminating in the comically feeble year-long term of Yoshiro Mori only dug Japan's heels further into the mud. Facing potentially disastrous parliamentary elections in July, the LDP found Koizumi's wide popular support irresistible, and his face representing, at least cosmetically, a call for reform not a little convenient.
A wave of popular support Koizumi comes in with a 65 percent approval rating got the rebel this far. But having given Koizumi his shot, the calcified, self-preservationist LDP elders will not be as eager to watch him engineer their downfall. Koizumi, who likes to talk about changing Japanese elections to bypass the LDP machinery, started incurring factional wrath on his first day in office Friday with his old-guard-snubbing cabinet selections.
Now the watch is on to see whether Koizumi will fail by pragmatism, by cutting too many of the usual wheel-greasing deals with the party elders to try and effect change or by idealism, by cutting too few. Popular support? The LDP hasn't lasted 46 years by listening to the whims of the Japanese voters, and the Japanese voters didn't keep the LDP in power for 46 years because they were much more eager than their politicians to endure the pain of real reform.
And so if there is little optimism for Koizumi's chances at effecting reform and Japan's for effecting a recovery, for the first time in a long time there is hope. Hope that Japan's government can face reality and do what is plainly necessary to restore the vibrancy of the world's second-largest economy at a time when the U.S. and Europe are both in mini-funks of their own. Hope that Japan, both politically and economically, is finally ready for change.
And fear. Koizumi says plainly and rightly that Japan's economy needs a sharper, deeper recession before it can pull out of its current, shallow one. Should Koizumi defy the odds and prove a wild success, a period of creative destruction in Japan could extend and deepen the current global slump. Yet after a decade of slow decay, it is no time to be squeamish about bleeding Japan in order to save it.
Junichiro Koizumi is not squeamish about change. He's been pushing for the same reforms since the mid-'90s, and has been around the government long enough to know where the medicine has to go and who has to swallow it. The stomachs of the rest of the government and the voters, who loved Koizumi for what he's against but may not feel the same about what he's for are quite another matter.