Fukuda's reshuffle buys some time
ADELAIDE - In a last-ditch effort to boost his sagging popularity ratings, save his position and prevent his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from facing a premature general election, Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda last week reshuffled his cabinet.
He dumped 13 of the 17 cabinet ministers and replaced them with some who have been characterized as "anti-reformers" because of their opposition to former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's reform proposals, and particularly his postal reform policy.
Fukuda's reshuffle has only bought him some time as his chances of survival beyond the next election are dim. It is possible his leadership will be challenged even before the elections, which are not due until September 2009, but the prime minister can announce polls any time before that.
New cabinet - a balancing act
Many in the new cabinet are old faces brought back with the aim of keeping the LDP party together through allocating positions to all major factions. There are five newcomers. More known than others among these is Kyoko Nakayama, the gender equality and social affairs minister. Nakayama is a former Finance Ministry official and first-term Upper House member who advised the current and two of his predecessor prime ministers - Shinzo Abe and Koizumi - on North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens.
Another woman, dubbed "rebel" because of her opposition to Koizumi's reform agenda, is Seiko Noda, placed in charge of food safety and consumer issues, a newly-created ministerial position. Noda is a former telecommunications minister and has a strong popularity base as an advocate for consumer rights. As Japanese consumers are becoming increasingly nervous about the safety of imported food and the rising prices of essential commodities, Noda's job will be to enhance their confidence in the LDP's policies.
To keep the balance between popular and female members and party heavyweights, Bunmei Ibuki, who served as a senior party executive under Fukuda's first cabinet, was appointed finance minister. Another party veteran, Kaoru Yosano, who wants a consumption tax increase to deal with mounting government debt, has been brought back as economic and fiscal policy minister.
The most surprising decision was the retention of chief cabinet secretary Nobutaka Machimura. This is a highly important position that serves as a link between the cabinet and the party. It is no secret Fukuda and Machimura do not get along and it was widely tipped that Machimura would be removed. Political calculations suggest Machimura was retained because he is the leader of the largest faction within the LDP.
Another unexpected development was the appointment of Taro Aso as the party's secretary general, a position Aso held briefly under Abe. When Abe resigned in September last year, Aso ran for the prime ministerial position but came a distant second to Fukuda. When Fukuda formed his cabinet last year and invited Aso to join, Aso rejected the offer.
While accepting the position this time, Aso said it was "to tide over what appears to be the biggest crisis since the party's foundation". He was referring to the situation where the Upper House is dominated by the opposition, which has frustrated Fukuda's and the LDP's agendas by rejecting bills and forcing the Fukuda government to use its two-thirds majority in the Lower House to pass legislation.
Aso is an influential LDP senior party leader with his eyes fixed on the premiership. Given his position, he will be able to position himself better to challenge Fukuda or any other potential rival.
Fukuda's popularity unchanged
As a moderate and unassuming leader, it was assumed that Fukuda would be able to give new direction to both domestic and foreign policies. But a series of scandals involving high-profile politicians and officials and his failure to reach out to opposition parties who control the Upper House have made Fukuda's political life miserable.
While he and his colleagues expected the cabinet reshuffle would give the government a much-required shot in the arm and boost its popularity, Fukuda got nothing but disappointment. Polls indicate that the second cabinet is no more popular that the first, and that if general elections were held now, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) would trump the LDP.
Many commentators have dubbed the cabinet "retrograde, lackluster and uninspiring". Fukuda's approval ratings in the past several months have ranged in the vicinity of the mid to high 20s. Neither hosting the Group of Eight summit nor a new cabinet has brought any political relief.
By reshuffling his cabinet, Fukuda sends a clear message that he is not ready to relinquish the position. But the same problems remain: unending scandals and corruption cases both within his party and the bureaucracy, the rising cost of living, deteriorating employment and unresolved issues related to lost pension records. If these are not addressed, Fukuda will be shown the door sooner rather later.
Replacement of Fukuda
There are various scenarios should Fukuda go. Some think if his popularity does not improve, he might step aside and Aso will take the helm. Alternatively, if Fukuda does not relinquish his position, despite sliding popularity, it is likely Aso will challenge his leadership and gain enough support to take the top job.
In a Mainichi newspaper poll taken just after the cabinet reshuffle, 57% of the respondents expressed positive expectations for Aso, an outspoken nationalist. That Fukuda decided to bring Aso to such an important position tells a lot about Fukuda's lack of confidence in himself and his policies.
In another scenario, if Fukuda is forced to resign before the general election he may announce a snap poll. This is not in the party's interests, though, as the LDP's popularity has seen a sharp decline under Fukuda and Ichiro Ozawa's could well oust the DPJ from power.
But if a new leader is required to replace Fukuda, either before or after the general election, Aso remains top candidate, with a few serious contenders. Sadakazu Tanigaki, former finance minister, LDP policy chief and now the land, infrastructure and transport minister, who ran for the position before, is a possible contender. The leader of the largest faction within the LDP and the chief cabinet secretary, Machimura, is another possibility.
But more than the criteria of who heads the largest faction, the most important consideration is the ability of a candidate to regain the trust of the voters. Here, too, Aso may be ranked as number one, with some caveats.
Aso will need to play down some of his hawkish policy attitudes as there is little support for them among ordinary Japanese. His stance on constitutional revision is also contentious. The LDP's junior coalition partner, the New Komeito, is unwilling to support Aso's hawkish agenda and, if frustrated, may consider joining Ozawa, who would welcome him with open arms.
Although Aso heads one of the smallest factions in the LDP, he has the necessary supporters in the other major factions, including Machimura's. Furthermore, Aso enjoys strong support in the local chapters of the LDP, whose votes are important. Joining hands with Fukuda allows Aso to form amicable relations with the largest faction, to which Fukuda belongs.
Overall, Aso is well positioned to take the helm from Fukuda. But the trajectories of politics do not move in straight lines. When the LDP is desperate to save itself it throws surprises by bringing in someone to the leadership position to serve as a seat warmer until such time the party gets its act together.
Somewhat hawkish, Yuriko Koike, although he missed out on a place in the cabinet, should not be ruled out as a surprise replacement for Fukuda. A former high-profile TV anchorwoman, Koike has served in many ministerial positions, including environment and defense.
In a country where females hold very few high-ranking public positions, the attraction of a woman leading the world's second-largest economy and a modern industrialized nation is great.
Purnendra Jain is professor and head of Asian Studies at Australia's Adelaide University.
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