Can Koizumi Conquer All?

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President Junichiro Koizumi leads the LDP lawmakers in a cheer of "ganbaro"

Junichiro Koizumi is set to be Japan's next prime minister after shaking up the creaky but formidable Liberal Democratic party machinery with what in Japan passes for a populist revolt. The 59-year-old with tousled hair and a fondness for rock music promises to revamp the LDP, pack his cabinet with fresh faces, force some bitter medicine on Japan's ailing banks and — if necessary — send Japan into recessionary shock in order to save it.

In a Q&A, former TIME Tokyo bureau chief Frank Gibney assesses Koizumi's chances of living up to the wild sense of promise that his election brings to Japan and its moribund economy. It seems as if the early line on Koizumi is that he's either the answer to all of Japan's problems or destined for a short and frustrated political career.

Frank Gibney: Well, he's definitely not the answer to all Japan's problems. It's certainly a hopeful sign that he comes in with such resounding public support. But if Koizumi is a rebel, he's still an old-line LDP guy. And no matter how committed he is to reforming the LDP, he's still dealing with the same party guys who have chosen prime ministers for so long — and made the post pretty much a revolving door.

The people who support the prime minister haven't changed. And it's not the PM who needs to change and start looking to the future and meaningfully dealing with Japan's economy — it's the party. This seems to be a generational problem. Anybody 55 years and older comes from a political culture that does not and has not faced up to reality. It's a political culture where accountability is a very foreign word.

Yet the party seemed willing to respond to public opinion in this case. Can Koizumi force economic reform from the ground up?

The fact that he had enough public support to change the party rules and get himself this far is a terrifically hopeful sign. This may well be the beginning of a new political era in Japan.

But as far as the economy, I'm not sure that even the Japanese voters understand how painful this has to get before it gets better. The reality is that after 10 years of economic slump, the only thing that can force Japan out of its recession is a bigger recession.

Now, a lot can be said for his popular image and his popular support. Psychologically, he offers a great deal of hope to Japanese consumers, and that could make reform somewhat easier. But he's got to be able to do what few Japanese prime ministers even attempt to do these days: take his case to the Japanese people, explain what needs to be done, and get their support — and enough support to overwhelm the LDP's inherent resistance to change.

If he can, great. But it's a long shot.