Japan's parliament began its summer recess yesterday having enacted a contentious law allowing the dispatch of troops to Iraq, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi probably won't get much rest.
Old guard barons in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are seeking a candidate to challenge Koizumi in a party leadership race set for Sept. 20, while the main opposition Democratic Party is moving ahead with a merger that has raised its profile ahead of a possible general election later this year.
How the political jockeying plays out over the next several months will determine whether Koizumi, who leapt to power in 2001 on a wave of public support for his economic reform agenda, wins more time to try to implement those reforms.
For now, Koizumi's public support -- his main weapon against LDP anti-reformers -- is holding above 40 percent, unusually high for a Japanese leader after more than two years in office.
At least three members of the LDP's biggest parliamentary faction have indicated they are keen to challenge Koizumi, as is Shizuka Kamei, the leader of a smaller faction and a former party policy chief who advocates abandoning the prime minister's pledge to rein in the public spending that has left Japan with the biggest debt among advanced nations.
"Inside the LDP, his opponents are still searching for an alternative," said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo. "They will probably run someone, but my guess now is that Koizumi looks pretty safe.
Others are not so sure.
"Koizumi is in a strong position since his support rate is high, but there is a question as to whether he can survive," said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst at UBS Securities.
Also troubling for Koizumi are signs that voters are beginning to view the Democrats as a viable alternative to the LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the past half-century.
The Democrats' agreement last week to absorb the smaller, hawkish Liberal Party appears to have given the party a boost, although skepticism about its chances of taking power is deep.
Asked who they'd prefer to see as prime minister -- Koizumi or Democratic Party chief Naoto Kan -- 46 percent opted for Koizumi while only 24 percent chose Kan, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in a survey yesterday.
The picture changed, though, when voters were asked how they planned to vote in the next general election, which some media commentators have already tipped for Nov. 9.
Thirty-nine percent opted for the opposition while 35 percent chose the ruling coalition.
Kan's opposition to Koizumi's plan to send troops to Iraq in what could be Japan's biggest overseas military operation since World War II could also swing votes, one reason the government seems to be dragging its feet on setting a date for the dispatch.
A rising death toll for US soldiers is making Japanese voters wary of sending ground troops to Iraq, where they would be operating without the explicit approval of the UN.