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As New Year Approaches, Japan's Koizumi Hopes for Rebound - 2002-12-25

The government of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi heads into the new year with slumping popularity. Nevertheless, several opposition politicians have announced they will defect to the ruling coalition, saying there is no effective political alternative in the country.

Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi, who enjoyed popularity ratings as high as 90 percent when he first took office in April 2001, is seeing his public support levels slip.

A series of opinion polls released in the last week show that support for the prime minister and his cabinet are at about 50 percent.

The most recent survey, in the conservative Yomiuri newspaper, gives no reason for the decline. But many Japanese say they are disillusioned with the country's stubborn economic slump, and believe that creating a financial turnaround should be the government's top priority.

Mr. Koizumi has unveiled a series of economic reforms to boost employment and clear bad bank loans. But they have had little effect so far. Unemployment remains near a record high, and the stock market is hovering around a 19-year low.

The prime minister's September summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il gave him a temporary lift in the opinion polls. At that meeting, Mr. Kim apologized for the abductions of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang's intelligence agents in the 1970s and 1980s. But the impact diminished, as talks on setting up diplomatic ties with the North stalled over lingering problems concerning the abductees and North Korea's nuclear program.

Despite Prime Minister Koizumi's woes, four opposition lawmakers defected Tuesday to the ruling coalition. Hiroshi Kumagai, the most senior of the four lawmakers, says there is a limit to what he and the other politicians can do, if they stay with the opposition Democratic Party.

The shuffle will not significantly shift the balance of power in the Japanese Parliament, but the ruling coalition's seats in the powerful lower house will increase to 282 from the current 278.

The defections are a blow to the troubled Democratic Party, which has even lower popularity ratings than the Koizumi government. A few weeks ago, the party ousted its president over a controversial proposal to merge with a rival group.

The Democrats have never seriously challenged the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan since 1955.