Three out of four candidates in tomorrow's elections for the leadership of Japan's long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are seated in a row, sporting almost identical dark blue suits and conservative ties, their black hair neatly combed into place.
The fourth, Junichiro Koizumi, wears a light-gray suit and lavender tie, capped by a shock of long, wavy, almost unruly salt-and-pepper hair. His appearance only scratches the surface of his willingness to go against the grain of Japan's LDP - and the system that Mr. Koizumi says he is trying to buck by running as an "independent" in tomorrow's party election.
Tuesday's vote, which will pick a party president and effectively, the next prime minister of Japan, pits popularity against party machinery. Observers say this is shaping up as a rare Japanese election whose outcome is not predictable in advance.
"It seems like the earth is shaking," Koizumi told reporters in front of LDP headquarters Saturday night. "I feel that there are great changes afoot both in political circles and among LDP members."
Just over a week ago, Koizumi triggered something of a political earthquake by quitting the LDP faction headed by current Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, whose single-digit popularity ratings have forced him to agree to step down. In the LDP, a bastion of cookie-cutter politics in which individuality and charisma are rarely the characteristics that catapult a man to the top, loyalty to a faction does. But in the face of criticism that the move was mere posturing, Koizumi vowed. "After the presidential election, I will not return to the factions. And once I am [LDP] president, I will not base the cabinet on factions. I will also stop the habit of changing the cabinet every year."
That practice mimics what is known in the Japanese workplace as jinjiido, in which employees of companies and government bureaucracies take on new jobs or rotate positions. Like spring cleaning, it occurs each April 1, often without regard to merit or whether the new appointee is the best-qualified person for the job.
Politics in Japan works much the same way. Japan has had seven prime ministers in the past 10 years, each of them viewed as replaceable by the party "kingmakers" who put them there. The LDP, which has portrayed itself as Japan's catch-all party for more than half a century, is divided into factions at whose core stands little more than the powerbrokers themselves. Promising politicians are expected to show loyalty to them, rather than to any particular ideological bent.
But Koizumi, the former minister of health and welfare, is trying to reinvent the wheel by seeking support of LDP members without a major faction behind him. He also promises to overhaul the banking system, rid the country of its bad debts, and privatize major state-run agencies such as the postal service.
Same old, same old
To be sure, some of these are promises that voters have been hearing from politicians of all stripes since the country's bubble economy burst more than a decade ago. But more, Koizumi says he will promote to high positions of government young people and women, both of whom tend to be absent from Japanese corridors of power, dominated by men well past the age of retirement. Koizumi has also suggested that he would break the coalition's alliance with the Komeito Party, run by a Buddhist organization that many Japanese mistrust as a incursion of religion into political life. And such a small number of people is responsible for choosing Japan's head of government that Koizumi and other reformers have suggested direct elections of the prime minister.
All of that sounds quite attractive to a younger and slightly gutsier generation of LDP politicians, many of whom are supporting Koizumi's bid for office. But is unclear whether Koizumi's popularity with them and with rank-and-file LDP members across the nation will translate into votes from veteran members of the Diet, or parliament, who will be under pressure to vote in line with their factions.
As of yesterday, the results of early prefectural primaries - roughly akin to state primaries in the US - showed Koizumi far ahead of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who, as the candidate from the LDP faction with the largest number of seats in the Diet, was the frontrunner. Taro Aso, the minister of economic and fiscal affairs, and Shizuka Kamei, a member of the "Gang of Five" who selected Mr. Mori for the country's top slot a year ago, are also on the ballot.
This year, prefectural representatives of the party have more of a say in the selection of a prime minister than ever before. Each of the 47 prefectures gets three votes, instead of one, for a total of 141 ballots. Though polls show Koizumi sweeping up many of those votes - comprising a chorus of disappointment with the LDP's politics-as-usual even in the face of economic crisis - that only makes up about 30 percent of the total number of eligible votes.
The remainder come from 346 LDP Diet members, many of them veteran politicians who benefited from - and owe their seats to - playing ball within the faction system. To cross it is to risk virtual excommunication from the faction altogether.
"The LDP members live and breathe the faction system. For them to change that is to lose their power," says Minoru Morita, a political analyst with the Morita Research Institute in Tokyo. "You can't say that the current politicians are independent thinkers. They receive money from the faction and got to the position they did because of the faction."
Mr. Morita credits Koizumi as being one of the few LDP politicians who has not been cowered by former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, the party's current powerhouse. But Morita also thinks it is unlikely that Koizumi will win the support of the party members who would have to break ranks with their factions to support him.
"Mr. Koizumi's faction did not have enough power, so he decided to leave and try to gain the party members' support. And he has done that, but he does not actually have enough power to win in the election," says Morita. More likely, he believes, Koizumi will be able to garner enough support to start his own party, taking along with him some of the party's dynamic young guard, strengthening the opposition against the LDP.
Uncertainty is better
But other analysts and media reports suggest that the die has not yet been cast. The fact that there is any uncertainty at all is seen by reformists as auspicious, compared with the back-room decisionmaking that produced Mori as a prime ministerial replacement last year. He was chosen in a closed-room vote hours after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke.
There may or may not be a run-off race between the top two candidates in tomorrow's race. The LDP's rules stipulate that there should be a tie-breaker election if neither contender wins a majority, but Mr. Hashimoto may withdraw from the race if Koizumi appears to have overwhelming support, reports the Daily Yomiuri newspaper, quoting a source in Hashimoto's faction.
Moreover, it is not clear whether, when a prefecture votes one way - in favor of Koizumi, for example - an LDP Diet member from the same prefecture will be able to reconcile a vote with his faction, against the wishes of his constituents. Crossing the faction may be dangerous, but so may be crossing the voters, who may register any displeasure with representatives at Upper House elections scheduled for July.
That is the kind of dilemma many here say politicians shouldn't have to consider. Says Yoshimi Watanabe, one of the young progressive Diet members from the LDP: "The whole faction system has to be changed to regain the people's trust. The politicians need to be loyal to the people instead of to their faction."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor