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Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007


How long can Fukuda last?

In forming his Cabinet, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda surrounded himself with "heavyweights" of his Liberal Democratic Party — powerful figures who head their respective intraparty factions. Although Fukuda is older than most of them, there is no denying that his lower level of experience makes him look less reliable.

One of the reasons why the birth of the Fukuda government did not turn out as glamorous as he would have liked is that it meant the end of the political style of Junichiro Koizumi, who had dominated the minds of a great majority of Japanese citizens. Many descriptions characterize the unique way in which Koizumi ruled the nation, including near-theatrical performances, populism, the surprising selection of top lieutenants, the destruction of intraparty factions, political superiority over bureaucracy, and the shift from the public to the private sector.

Koizumi's immediate successor, Shinzo Abe, failed because he tried to imitate much of what his predecessor did. By contrast, Fukuda has made a stark deviation from Koizumi's way of running the LDP and the government. Indeed, what Fukuda is doing can be taken as "breaking away from the Koizumi political regime." It is no exaggeration to say that Fukuda is trying to reverse Koizumi's attempts to inject fresh air into Japan's antiquated politics.

This is reflected not only in his selection of the top LDP leadership and Cabinet ministers but also in his policy statements. He is clearly steering his government in a direction away from Koizumi's "structural reform" agenda, whose principal features included "no increase" in the consumption tax without curtailing government expenditures, reduction of public works projects and resuscitation of metropolitan areas.

Even though Fukuda and Abe appear to be diametrically opposed to each other vis-a-vis their predecessor Koizumi, it is interesting to note many similarities between them. Both are sons of powerful figures in the LDP. Abe's father served as foreign minister and Fukuda's was prime minister. They both served as their fathers' official secretaries when their fathers headed their respective intraparty factions. The only Cabinet post they ever held was that of chief Cabinet secretary.

Neither is strong enough or canny enough to survive a power struggle. Abe surprised the nation by abruptly resigning. But Fukuda acted similarly when he gave up his Cabinet post.

This has led one LDP lawmaker to say: "Add a couple of dozen years to Abe's age, make him a little bit dovish, and you get Fukuda. There isn't much difference between their frames of mind or their experiences."

Fukuda has been characterized as excelling in achieving stability and coordination. At the same time, however, he appears to have no political philosophy or concepts comparable to Koizumi's pursuit of privatization of postal services. Fukuda insists that all political judgment should be based on "common sense." He followed this common sense in selecting key figures for the LDP leadership and the Cabinet.

Even though Fukuda may have put an end to the Koizumi politics, he does not espouse a clear antithesis to what Koizumi was advocating. He listens politely to all sorts of politicians and bureaucrats, and this makes him look like a lawmaker's secretary. He makes decisions only by selecting the strongest opinion he has heard. This is Fukuda's way of achieving coordination. In other words, he may be a coordinator, but not a decision maker.

As the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito lost control of the Upper House in the July 29 election, Fukuda is doing everything in his power to get the cooperation of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

One of the crucial issues facing the Diet is the law that enables the Maritime Self-Defense Force to supply fuel naval vessels of the United States and other countries taking part in an antiterrorism mission in and around Afghanistan. While the government and the ruling coalition seek to enact a new law to continue the MSDF's refueling activities to replace the current law that expires Nov. 1, the DPJ is staunchly opposed.

The DPJ and other opposition parties will certainly get together to defeat the bill in the Upper House. But under the Constitution, when the Upper House votes down a bill, the Lower House may enact it by a two-thirds majority, currently enjoyed by the ruling coalition.

Fukuda is not keen on taking such a drastic course of action to attain his goal. Instead, he is bent on using more flexibility, even if that means disrupting the fuel supply operation for a while. He has also agreed to study the DPJ proposal of covering the entire "basic portion" of pensions with consumption tax revenue.

More surprisingly, Fukuda has even suggested consultations with the DPJ on the timing of dissolving the Lower House and calling general elections, even though such an act is the prime minister's prerogative.

The ideal scenario that Fukuda and his supporters can hope for (obviously with much wishful thinking) would be that the LDP accepts so many of the DPJ's proposals and demands that it becomes increasingly difficult for the DPJ to express opposition to the government. In the end, the Lower House would be dissolved with mutual consent between the ruling coalition and the opposition groups. The ruling coalition would lose some seats but still manage to maintain a majority in the Lower House and thus remain able to elect the prime minister of its choice.

The DPJ, on the other hand, would face the dilemma of having failed to take over the government even after winning elections in both houses? All this would clear the way for the formation of a "grand coalition" between the LDP and the DPJ.

This scenario, however, is not very likely to materialize because it is inconceivable that DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa would let himself get trapped so easily by the conciliatory tactics of the Fukuda regime. Instead, Ozawa will build up an atmosphere of confrontation, refuse to talk to the LDP and force Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and call general elections.

Even though Fukuda is surrounded by "heavyweights" both within the LDP and the Cabinet, it is not clear who will bear the responsibility of talking to Ozawa or implementing cooperation with the DPJ.

Every powerful leader within the LDP has been given a responsible task by Fukuda. This situation, however, has the inherent danger of encouraging everybody to try to avoid responsibility. If that happens, the Fukuda administration could very well be even more short-lived than the Abe administration.

This is an abridged translation of an article that appeared in the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine of in-depth analysis of Japan's political, social and economic landscape.

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