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WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP.
Japan's Junichiro Koizumi has his own designs on the Prime Minister's job.

'Politicians are Afraid of Elections and Losing Votes'
Chief LDP powerbroker Junichiro Koizumi on Mori, Japanese politics, and his own ambitions
By DONALD MACINTYRE and SACHIKO SAKAMAKI

November 27, 2000
Web posted at 8:40 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:40 a.m. EDT


Junichiro Koizumi, a heavyweight in the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and prime ministerial hopeful, talked to TIME Asia's Donald Macintyre and Sachiko Sakamaki about Koichi Kato's failed palace coup, the future of Japanese politics, and his own future. Edited excerpts:

TIME: Why did you choose to support Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori during the no- confidence motion against him?
Koizumi:
I've been close to Koichi Kato and Taku Yamazaki [LDP rebel leaders], but I'm closest to Mori. We've been in the same faction for the past 30 years and had a common mentor, [former Prime Minister] Takeo Fukuda. Why did I support Mori? Because in terms of policy, there is little difference between these men. These days there is no force either in the LDP or Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to eliminate wasteful expenditure, and to thoroughly reform the country. Many politicians talk about structural reform, but all they are referring to is a mild policy. Nobody says the excessive issuing of government bonds should stop. That's the problem. No matter who becomes Prime Minister, Japan won't change unless you address this problem. I was asked to become a cabinet member. But I turned down the offer because I can't implement my policy [of privatizing Japan's post office, effectively one of the world's largest banks]. Sooner or later, though, the time will come when people can no longer resist change. That will be the time for me to act.

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TIME: So it wasn't a difficult choice to support Mori over Kato?
Koizumi:
No, it wasn't. The two aren't that different. The media and the public are wrong to believe that they are. This was only a power struggle [and was not related to policy issues].

TIME: Why did Kato fail?
Koizumi:
He was too optimistic. Is he dead as a politician? I'm not sure. As a friend, I understand his feelings, but his means were wrong. He took actions that were hard to understand. If he had said he would leave the party and support the no-confidence motion, then his actions could be understood. Or if he had said he'd support the motion even if it meant expulsion from the LDP. But he didn't.

TIME: So what's the fallout of the revolt?
Koizumi:
The current stagnant situation will continue for a long time, and there will be various attempts to force Mori out until the Upper House election next year.

TIME: What are your relations with Hiromu Nonaka [LDP secretary-general and chief powerbroker] like?
Koizumi:
Not bad. We agree on supporting Mori, but we're different when it comes to policy. He's adamantly opposed to privatizing the postal system.

TIME: The public does not support Mori -- and are behind Kato. Why is there such a gap between the public will and the LDP?
Koizumi:
Either public opinion is wrong, or the public is telling lies to pollsters.

TIME: Economists are keenly aware of the economic risks Japan faces, but the politicians don't seem to care. Why is this so?
Koizumi:
The politicians are afraid of elections. They're afraid of losing votes. But reform can't take place unless there's trust in the top leader. Mori must tell the public to be patient.

TIME: Can you accomplish your privatization policy by staying in the LDP?
Koizumi:
The time will come when people realize that it's necessary. Japan is facing a crisis the country keeps borrowing money to service its debts -- but neither the public nor the politicians have a sense of crisis. When there was an oil crisis, it was said that Japan would suffer the worst damage. So Japan borrowed money and expanded its economy. But the government did not pay back its debts when the economy became strong. And it kept borrowing until the country was stuck with huge debts. People don't understand that privatizing the postal system doesn't just affect the post and telecoms sector; it affects the entire gamut of administrative and fiscal problems.

TIME: Is this the beginning of the end of the LDP?
Koizumi:
I think so. But the party's collapse actually started in the early 1990s. It didn't just start now.

TIME: Will your friendship with Kato and Yamazaki change or not?
Koizumi:
In politics, enemies and friends always change. It's not a big deal.

TIME: What will Japan be like in five years?
Koizumi:
Confused. The Japanese government will be broke. Then people will realize, wake up, and my opinion will become the majority opinion. In five or so years, there will be major change. And only after the crisis comes will the LDP change.

TIME: Why don't Japanese Prime Ministers have any leadership qualities?
Koizumi:
People don't realize that the Prime Minister has a lot of power. And with strong will it is possible to exercise that power. But the country's leaders care too much about the opinions of other people.

TIME: Do you want to become Prime Minister?
Koizumi:
I don't want to raise my hand [to become the country's leader]. Why did I run for the LDP presidency before? It was so I could openly discuss my opinions. There's a force [Nonaka's faction] trying to push me forward for the PM's post if I renounce my policy on privatizing the postal system. But I don't want to become a Prime Minister by renouncing my policies.

TIME: How do you describe your political style?
Koizumi:
It is like nobody else's in Japan. It's unique, extraordinary.

TIME: What's your vision for Japan's future?
Koizumi:
I'd like to see people directly vote for the Prime Minister, like the system practiced in the U.S. It can be done, by changing the Constitution. But there's strong opposition in the ruling parties.

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