- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

The winds of change are blowing through Tokyo. On Wednesday, former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka resigned her membership in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Not long ago, such a move would have meant political suicide in Japan, where opposition to the LDP has been ineffective enough to all but concede a one-party state for decades. The intention of the ambitious Mrs. Tanaka to run for a Lower House seat as an independent promises to shake up the political status quo.

Mrs. Tanaka’s move worries Tokyo powerbrokers because of national elections to be held next month. In a poll conducted last weekend by the Daily Yomiuri newspaper, 42 percent of Japanese said they disapprove of the current cabinet because it has not moved to address the nation’s economic problems. This doesn’t endanger Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s tenure as president of the LDP as much as it suggests that the party’s lock on the electorate is not what it has been since the 1960s, when the establishment was rewarded with near-unanimous loyalty for the country’s postwar economic miracle.

The Koizumi government’s approval ratings have rebounded to a level above 50 percent in the run-up to the Nov. 9 elections, but the support is not solid. In June, only 40 percent of Japanese approved of the cabinet, a number that was matched by a 40 percent disapproval rating. Even now, according to the Daily Yomiuri’s weekend poll, only 9 percent support the prime minister’s performance on the economy. Seventy-six percent of those who support Mr. Koizumi admit that they do so only because there are no alternatives.

Mrs. Tanaka has set out to offer an alternative. Her tart tongue often gets her in trouble, but it is her brash criticism of the system that helped build her base of support. Mr. Koizumi named her Japan’s first female foreign minister in 2001 largely because national surveys regularly touted her as the nation’s most popular politician. In that position, she fought for control of the ministry’s entrenched bureaucracy and lost. When she was forced out of the cabinet in January 2002, support for the Koizumi government plunged.

Mrs. Tanaka’s separation from the Liberal Democrats is particularly noteworthy because she grew up in the center of power. Her late father, Kakuei Tanaka, was premier in the 1970s and was one of the LDP’s most influential figures. When he was prime minister between 1971 and 1976, Tanaka took his daughter, Makiko, instead of his wife, on state visits, giving the eventual successor to his Diet seat a high profile at an early age.

Makiko Tanaka was once regarded as a likely future prime minister. It would take a political revolution for that to be possible from outside the LDP. But with a growing majority of Japanese in favor of reforms that the Liberal Democrats refuse to deliver, it wouldn’t be safe to rule her out.

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