Fukuda launches his 'do or die' cabinet

Posted in Japan | 18-Oct-07 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda

TOKYO - New Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a 71-year-old veteran moderate with a reputation as a consensus-oriented politician, formally inaugurated his cabinet on Wednesday, filling a two-week political vacuum created by his predecessor Shinzo Abe's abrupt resignation announcement.

With the Diet (parliament) in session, however, Yasuo Fukuda, the eldest son of the late Takeo Fukuda (prime minister 1976-78), retained most of the 17 members of the previous Abe cabinet, which had been reshuffled only in late August. Fukuda himself named his team a "do or die" cabinet.

Nobutaka Machimura, who heads the largest faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was appointed chief cabinet secretary. Fukuda belongs to the same faction. Masahiko Komura, who served as defense minister in the Abe cabinet until Tuesday morning, was appointed to replace Machimura as foreign minister.

Shigeru Ishiba, who had served as director general of what was then the Defense Agency under prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, was named to head the Defense Ministry. House of Representatives member Kisaburo Tokai was chosen to replace Bunmei Ibuki as education and science minister. Ibuki took a key LDP post on Monday.

All the other 13 members of the Fukuda team are holdovers from the Abe cabinet, including Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, and Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, the only cabinet member from the LDP's junior coalition partner, New Komeito. The posts for all the 13 ministers remain unchanged.

Although the new premier asked former LDP secretary general Taro Aso, who ran against Fukuda in Sunday's party presidential election, to join his cabinet, Aso declined. In an apparent attempt to establish party unity, Fukuda retained two key cabinet ministers who staunchly backed Aso in the LDP leadership race - Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari.

Fukuda said at a press conference on Tuesday night that his cabinet has "its back against the wall. That is to say, if [the cabinet] fails, the LDP will be ousted from power."

Fukuda's new top government spokesman Machimura said the replacement of cabinet ministers "was kept to a minimum so we can chart a successful path through a difficult Diet setting".

Fukuda won the LDP presidential election, which was held to choose Abe's successor as party president and hence as prime minister, with the backing of leaders of eight of nine intra-party factions. The faction led by Aso is very small, with only 16 Diet members.

But the more hawkish Aso, 67, performed much better than expected, garnering 197 votes, compared with the 330 ballots cast for Fukuda. In addition to 387 LDP members of the Diet - 304 from the House of Representatives and 83 from the House of Councilors - 141 local chapter representatives voted.

Fukuda said on Tuesday, "He [Aso] said he wanted to take a rest for a while because he had been serving in key posts for quite a while." Many observers say Aso has apparently opted not to join the Fukuda cabinet, believing that distancing himself from the cabinet would boost his chances of replacing Fukuda in the future.

On Monday, Fukuda also installed faction bosses who supported his bid for LDP presidency at key party posts, in defiance of widespread criticism of faction-oriented politics, something most Japanese thought Koizumi had mothballed as a symbol of the "old LDP" and an obstacle to reform when he roared into office in 2001.

Ibuki, who served as education and science minister in the Abe cabinet, became the new LDP secretary general, the party's second-in-command after Fukuda, while former finance minister Sadakazu Tanigaki became chairman of the Policy Research Council. General Council chairman Toshihiro Nikai kept his post.

Former secretary general Makoto Koga, also a faction chief, became chairman of the election strategy committee. This post was upgraded from that of director general of the election strategy bureau to make it equal to the three key posts.

The LDP-led coalition lost control of the House of Councilors in the July election to the opposition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). But as LDP president, Fukuda had been assured of election as prime minister in the Diet, as the party controls the more powerful House of Representatives, whose decision constitutionally takes precedence over that of the House of Councilors regarding the election of a prime minister.

Takeo Fukuda became his father's secretary in 1976 after working for an oil company for 17 years. Fukuda was first elected to the Lower House in 1990 at the age of 53 and is now serving his sixth term. At 71, the younger Fukuda became prime minister at the same age as his father did.

The new prime minister served as chief cabinet secretary from October 2000 to May 2004 under prime ministers Yoshiro Mori and Koizumi. Having held the post for 1,289 days, Fukuda became the longest-serving top government spokesperson. He quit the post to take responsibility for his failure to pay some pension premiums.

Fukuda faces the daunting task of reversing the sagging fortunes of the LDP, which is still reeling from a crushing defeat on July 29. The DPJ became the largest party in that Diet chamber, amid strong public anger over the government's pension records-keeping fiasco and a series of gaffes and political funds-related scandals involving some of Abe's ministers.

The structural reform drive ignited by Koizumi and basically inherited by Abe will very likely lose momentum. While vowing to continue with the drive, Fukuda has said his administration will pay more attention to the issue of social inequalities, including that between richer urban and poorer rural areas.

Although Fukuda has stressed the need for continued fiscal discipline as the nation's fiscal condition is the worst among major industrial countries, he is expected to face strong pressure from within the LDP-led coalition for more public works and other spending to get back support in rural areas.

There are strong concerns within the party about a possible loss of power in the next general election for the House of Representatives, which must be held by September 2009 but is very likely to be held much earlier.

Most experts agree - and even many voters feel - that a hike in the 5% consumption tax will become inevitable in the not-so-distant future to finance rising pension and other social-security costs amid the rapid aging of the population and to stem an even further rise in already huge government debts. But serious discussions on the issue are very likely to be shelved, at least until after the next general election.

Fukuda, known for his dovish diplomatic stance, has vowed to promote amicable relations with Japan's Asian neighbors while maintaining its pro-US foreign policy. Unlike Abe, Fukuda was critical of Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which drew angry responses from China and South Korea. Fukuda has said he will not go to the controversial shrine to avoid upsetting Asian neighbors that suffered from Japanese wartime aggressions.

Unlike Abe, an anti-North Korea hardliner, Fukuda has also called for a flexible stance toward the Stalinist Asian neighbor while maintaining the "dialogue and pressure" approach to resolve the issue of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals. "We must devise some means to convey to the other side our desire and readiness to conduct negotiations," Fukuda said recently.

The first order of business for the Fukuda administration is to extend the mission of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) to refuel vessels in the Indian Ocean as part of efforts to support the US-led coalition's "war against terrorism" in Afghanistan.

At issue is the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law enacted in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Arlington, Virginia. Under the law, MSDF vessels have been deployed in the Indian Ocean since November 2001 to refuel coalition warships. The DPJ has vowed to block another extension of the law by flexing its newly acquired muscles in the Upper House.

It now appears almost certain that the refueling mission will be terminated, at least temporarily, when the law expires on November 1. The Fukuda administration plans to submit a bill to the current extraordinary Diet session to establish a new law enabling the refueling mission. "The mission is extremely beneficial to the international community ... and I'm thinking to continue it," Fukuda said.

Fukuda has won a reputation as a hard-headed politician with a knack for coordinating policies. He has expressed hope that the ruling bloc will consult with the DPJ over key policy issues, including the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, pension-system reform and a possible consumption-tax hike. "It's imperative to negotiate with the DPJ, since they control the House of Councilors," Fukuda said on Sunday. "If the Diet keeps voting down bills, it'll cause trouble to taxpayers, and I believe the DPJ shares this concern with us."

Despite Fukuda's conciliatory overtures, however, the DPJ, emboldened by the opposition control of the Upper House, is stepping up its confrontational stance against the government and ruling parties. The new premier is expected to face difficulties in handling Diet affairs. The DPJ, determined to wrest power from the LDP-led coalition, has stepped up calls for an early general election for the House of Representatives.

Before being elected LDP president and prime minister, Fukuda hinted that if he were to take the helm of the party and government, he might dissolve the Lower House through negotiations with opposition parties. Speculation is already rife in political circles that Fukuda may be considering dissolving the Lower House next spring for an early general election in return for the opposition bloc's cooperation in having the fiscal 2008 state budget enacted in the Diet.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]

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