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Friday, Dec. 21, 2007
Fukuda's point of no return
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rocked the Japanese political landscape in November by predicting that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda would dissolve the Lower House and call a general election "in the near future."
The remark, made at an international investment seminar in Singapore, was somewhat bold, coming from Koizumi, who has refrained from making public comments since he stepped down in September last year.
Asked later when Fukuda specifically might take such action, Koizumi said "within two to three months, possibly before the end of this year."
A ranking official of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said, however, that Koizumi, rather than making a prediction, was expressing his wish for an early general election that would lead to a thorough reorganization of the political parties, now that a plan to form a "grand coalition" between the LDP and the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan has failed.
Another LDP leader has observed a conspicuous increase in the number of fundraising parties held by lawmakers who apparently anticipate a Lower House election in the near future.
Meanwhile, DPJ Diet policy chief Kenji Yamaoka said Nov. 24 that dissolution of the Lower House and the subsequent general election would be imminent if the Diet, in its extension session, passed a bill enabling the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume supplying fuel to U.S. vessels engaged in antiterrorist operations in the Indian Ocean. He went so far as to predict the vote for Feb. 17.
As the Diet session has been extended to Jan. 15, it now appears all but certain that the fuel-supply bill, even if defeated in the opposition-controlled Upper House, will be enacted by the two-thirds majority coalition of the LDP and New Komeito in the Lower House. Yet, despite outward signs of building momentum toward an early election, none of the three major political parties — LDP, DPJ or Komeito — appears to welcome the prospect.
LDP election campaign chief Makoto Koga said it would be utterly unrealistic to hope that the ruling coalition would keep the two-thirds majority in the Lower House after the next election. He added that Prime Minister Fukuda would not be obligated to dissolve the Lower House even if a censure motion against him passed in the Upper House.
DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa was more candid. He said he does not believe his party is powerful enough to win in the next general election. This remark was made at the press conference to announce his intention to step down from the party post. Since rescinding the decision, he still does not think the DPJ can win a majority in the lower chamber by itself.
It appears all but impossible for the DPJ, which won 113 seats in the 480-seat Lower House in the 2005 election, to win a 241-seat majority. Although a win of 230 seats would set up the possibility of forming a majority coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the People's New Party, even that number seems unlikely as does attaining the 220 seats needed to become the largest group in the chamber. The odds are that the seat count will fall short of 200 — itself is a major achievement compared with past performances.
This could force the DPJ to follow the only other alternative course of action: form the "grand coalition" with the LDP that Ozawa had agreed on before his own party rejected the idea.
Komeito is not in an enviable position, either. The political arm of the Buddhist religious sect Soka Gakkai, which used to boast of holding the "swing vote" in Japanese politics, is no longer as aggressive or cunning as it used to be, especially since its defeat in Upper House elections last summer. A Soka Gakkai leader lamented that at least six months would be needed for the party to recover.
With all three major political parties in disarray, the question is what Fukuda is really thinking. The answer is that he can't make up his mind.
By nature, his opinions tend to be influenced by what other people say and how circumstances change. But once he makes up his mind, he becomes quite resolute, as exemplified when he resigned as chief Cabinet secretary under Koizumi and when he fought for the LDP presidency following the resignation of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
Initially, Fukuda envisaged the next general election after this July's summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Hokkaido. As he did not want to rock the boat until then, he maintained a low profile and sought the DPJ's cooperation in passing the fuel-supply bill and the budget for the next fiscal year. He even offered to discuss the timing of dissolving the Lower House.
At the same time, however, Fukuda has grown anxious that no laws have been enacted since his Cabinet was inaugurated. He followed the advice of his mentor, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and met with Ozawa of the DPJ with a view toward creating a "grand alliance," which he thought was the only way to end the political chaos created by the divided Diet.
He also has a lot of pride. If the Upper House passes a censure motion against him, he is unlikely to bear the humiliation and, in all probability, will choose to dissolve the Lower House.
Not once since entering politics has Fukuda ever expressed his ambitions, initiated his own political agenda or established his own goals. His grandiose idea of forming a "grand coalition," as proposed to Ozawa, came from one advanced by Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun and one of Fukuda's brains.
The prime minister has the prerogative to dissolve the Lower House, but nobody is sure whether Fukuda would dare exercise it against representatives elected by the voters, as Koizumi and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone did. If not, he would then have to persevere like Takeo Miki and his father Takeo Fukuda. And therein lies the real reason for the lack of direction in Japanese politics.
If a move toward an early general election gains momentum with Koizumi trying to stir up confusion, rank-and-file lawmakers losing confidence, and opposition parties bluffing, Fukuda may suddenly be forced to make up his mind.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine about Japan's political, social and economic landscape.