Fukuda's political troubles deepen
ADELAIDE - Less than eighth months since assuming office, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's popularity rate is sinking fast. Questions are being asked as to whether Fukuda will survive even the average life span of prime ministers in Japan, which is roughly two years. His predecessor, Shinzo Abe resigned before completing one year in office, but before him Junichiro Koizumi remained in the position for about five years.
Two weeks ago, the Asahi newspaper reported Fukuda's popularity falling to 25%, which sits below the level of his predecessor Abe's, before his resignation.
Since he took office in September last year, Fukuda has hit many political hurdles and each has weakened his position significantly, both within his own party and among the ordinary people of Japan. His political future took a further precarious turn with the crushing defeat of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a by-election for a Lower House seat of Japan's parliament (Diet) held last week in Yamaguchi prefecture in southwest Japan.
The vacancy was filled by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) candidate Hideo Hiraoka who comprehensively defeated his LDP rival Shigetaro Yamamoto. Although this has not changed the political balance in the Lower House, it does symbolize the growing dissatisfaction with Fukuda's leadership, even in rural and regional areas such as Yamaguchi where the LDP has been traditionally strong.
Fukuda's problems partly arise from the fact that since July last year the Upper House of the Diet is controlled by opposition parties led by the DPJ and its leader Ichiro Ozawa. The LDP for most of its rule since 1955 enjoyed at least a working majority in both houses and was able to pass legislation without much opposition.
The first major hurdle that Fukuda had to deal with was to renew expired legislation enabling Japan's Self-Defense Forces to operate in the Indian Ocean providing support to the US-led mission in and around Afghanistan. After being passed in the lower house in November 2007, the bill was rejected by the opposition-controlled Upper House. To deal with the impasse, late last year Fukuda even tried to form a "grand coalition" with the DPJ which was accepted by Ozawa but did not eventuate due to opposition within the DPJ.
With no other option left, the Fukuda cabinet had to finally take recourse to Article 59 of the constitution. In the event that a bill is rejected by the Upper House, or no action is taken within 60 days since passing of a bill in the Lower House, the constitution allows the lower house to pass a bill a second time by a two-thirds majority of the members present.
It was the first time since the early 1950s that a bill went through a second vote in the Lower House after being rejected by the Upper House. While opposition criticized the government's railroading the bill through its majority, it did not consider a censure motion against Fukuda in the upper house which could have embarrassed Fukuda but not really forced his resignation.
Fukuda faced a similar situation with regards to a bill on petrol tax after it was passed by the lower house on February 29, but the Upper House would not act on it. Using the "60 days" clause, the Fukuda government with its two thirds majority in the Lower House was able to pass this legislation on April 30, making it the second legislation within months to be passed under Article 59 of the constitution.
Petrol tax is specific-purpose revenue which often goes to wasteful road construction projects. Japan has been much criticized for its waste of public funds on unnecessary public works projects, earning the nation the sobriquet "construction state". Although Fukuda promised that his government will introduce a new legislation that would enable proceeds from the tax to go to general revenue instead of road construction as in the past, the opposition-controlled Upper House would not buy Fukuda's pledge.
Due to non-renewal of the tax legislation, petrol prices from April 1 in Japan fell significantly, up to 24 yen (24 US cents) a liter. While consumers enjoyed the windfall from the political impasse, the government became increasingly nervous about its falling tax revenue. Japan's fiscal situation remains difficult as the nation's gross public debt has reached over 170% of gross domestic product and is likely to rise further. Given Japan's deficit budget and rising public debt, the government could not afford to lose some US$25 billion annually through the lapse of the petrol tax.
Fukuda's announcement that proceeds from the petroleum tax would go to general revenue from the next fiscal year has outraged a sizeable number of parliamentarians from his own party. Pro-construction LDP members who belong to the parliamentary group known as the "road tribe" may rebel against Fukuda if he tries to introduce a new bill to transfer the tax revenue to the general account.
While the opposition-controlled Upper House has made Fukuda's political life difficult, it may also be the case that his position comes under attack from his own party members if he pushes reform too fast. It will be difficult for Fukuda to act like Koizumi who was known for his reformist agenda and was willing to fight with his own party colleagues and win. He has neither the fighting spirit nor public support that Koizumi enjoyed.
That Fukuda realizes the intensity of the looming domestic political crisis is clear from his decision to cancel part of his overseas trips during the "golden week" holiday period. Fukuda cut short his overseas trip by canceling his meetings with the leaders of Britain, Germany and France and returned home after his meeting with President Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow only because Tokyo and Moscow have a long-standing territorial dispute off the north of Hokkaido with energy resources both want to tap.
Early elections or change in leadership
It is likely that forces will gather within the LDP to remove Fukuda from the position immediately after the Group of Eight summit to be held in Hokkaido in July. The possibility of the Abe pattern being repeated is high. Abe continued as prime minister after his party's crushing defeat in the Upper House elections in July. He refused to stand aside even after the political humiliation and attended the September Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney. But immediately upon his return to Tokyo, he buckled under pressure and announced his resignation as prime minister.
The other plausible, but less likely, scenario is Fukuda's insistence to continue and announce a snap election at an opportune time. A general election is not due until September 2009, but the prime minister has the prerogative to dissolve the Lower House and announce a general election anytime before the due date.
DPJ leader Ozawa has tried to pressure Fukuda to hold early elections as a referendum on his leadership. Fukuda has not made any statement about the possibility of a snap poll. This may not be in the party's interest as together with its coalition partner New Komeito it enjoys a solid majority in the Lower House.
Given Fukuda's plummeting popularity and voters withdrawing their support from the LDP (the Yamaguchi by-election was a mini political barometer), it is likely that the party will lose seats in the Lower House, making its political position more fragile in the Diet. The 2005 Koizumi electoral magic by successfully recruiting "political assassins" cannot be repeated so soon by any politician, let alone by Fukuda.
Purnendra Jain is professor and head of Asian Studies at Australia's Adelaide University.