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Monday, Jan. 21, 2008


Fukuda's house won't stand

It appears all but certain that the Japanese political landscape will undergo a drastic change this year as a result of general elections following the dissolution of the House of Representatives by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

In the previous election three years ago, the LDP headed by the then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi scored a resounding victory as a number of new faces won on the coattails of his pet theme of privatizing the postal services. This time, however, many of those so-called "Koizumi children" are bound to lose and it is certain that the lineup of political forces will undergo a drastic change.

A major question is whether the idea of forming a "grand coalition" between the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, the top opposition party, will resurface in the aftermath of the election. Such a scheme was agreed upon in principle between Fukuda and the DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa at their "summit meeting" last fall, but came to naught after Ozawa's lieutenants surprised him by rejecting it outright.

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who had talked Ozawa into meeting with Fukuda, still thinks that the opportunity is ripe for creating such a coalition. Moreover, Tsuneo Watanabe, who runs Japan's largest circulation daily newspaper Yomiuri and is reported to have masterminded the scheme, claims that there will be another development.

It is difficult to imagine, however, that Ozawa will be lured into reviving the coalition strategy, which collapsed due to his miscalculation.

This was not the first time that a suggestion had been made for grouping the LDP and the DPJ together. Three years ago, the then DPJ leader Seishi Maehara was approached by Watanabe and another leading business figure with Koizumi's clandestine idea of forming a "grand coalition." When the news was leaked three months later, suspicions and fears filled the political arena, but eventually it was forgotten by all.

It is worthy of note, however, that Watanabe's name appeared prominently in both cases, though the prevailing political climate was different in each case.

Be that as it may, a question still remains as to who persuaded Fukuda and Ozawa last fall to discuss the possibility of forming the grand coalition. Immediately after the scheme collapsed, Watanabe's Yomiuri newspaper carried a front page article saying the idea was Ozawa's. Ozawa lost no time in categorically denying this allegation, and insinuated that he had met Mori as Fukuda's proxy at the request of Watanabe. This led Watanabe's right-hand man, political editor Koichi Akaza, to challenge Ozawa to "tell the truth."

The truth seems to be that Ozawa took the initial step in last year's case. When it became clear that the DPJ would win big in the House of Councilors election in July last year, Ozawa was already thinking of forming a coalition with the LDP, according to Maehara. In an apparent bid to entice the LDP with that idea, Ozawa tried to use Watanabe's influence over the LDP leadership.

Within two weeks after the Upper House election, Watanabe's newspaper ran an editorial strongly favoring a LDP-DPJ coalition. But Ozawa had no intention of working closely with then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who he thought was a man of "ME-ism."

The move toward the grand coalition gained momentum when Abe stepped down and was replaced by Fukuda, who got quite easily influenced by senior LDP leaders eager for an early realization of the coalition. When the two finally met, Fukuda acceded to Ozawa's request to pretend that the idea of forming a grand coalition had been initiated by Fukuda, not by Ozawa. This infuriated Watanabe, who felt betrayed.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a close friend of Watanabe's, said later that while he favored the coalition idea, he had thought concrete steps toward that goal should be taken only after general elections. He lamented that Watanabe acted too soon.

Ozawa has a long track record of joining forces with a political party larger than his own, presenting the political issues to be tackled, eventually breaking up the coalition partner, and forcing a reorganization of political parties. To him, his own DPJ may be nothing more than a tool to cause disruption within the LDP.

Ozawa has no interest whatsoever in taking the reins of government himself. He wants to hold the No. 2 position with all the power of a kingmaker. That explains why he reportedly would have been happy to become the deputy prime minister without portfolio in an LDP-DPJ coalition government.

After general elections bound to take place this year, it is most unlikely that Ozawa will once again work toward the coalition of the LDP and the DPJ in their present forms. Rather, he will go much further and try to reorganize the Japanese political landscape more drastically.

In the likely event that neither the LDP nor the DPJ win a majority in the House of Representatives, some lawmakers of both will probably abandon their party affiliations and create a new group with an eye on capturing a swing vote. Heading that new group, small though it may be, appears to be of utmost interest to Ozawa, who played similar roles in the past. He probably already takes it for granted that his DPJ will not remain a united entity after the elections.

The overall mood in the political circles is leaning toward a thorough reorganization of the party lineup. Politicians of the younger generations have deep distrust in the coalition scheme favored by such old guards as Nakasone, 89, Watanabe, 81, Fukuda, 71, and Mori, 70, who they feel are trying to block a generational change by using political stability as an excuse.

The longer the makeshift government of Fukuda stays in power, the louder will become the call for a generational change. That would only work to prevent, rather than promote, any resurgence of an idea for creating the coalition between the LDP and the DPJ.

There appears to be nothing that could shore up the Fukuda government, whose rate of approval has declined rapidly. The most likely scenario is for him to be forced to dissolve the Lower House and call general elections against his will.

That means there no longer will be any prospect of ensuring political stability through the formation of a grand coalition. Instead, Japan will enter into an age of political turbulence this year.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine about Japan's political, social and economic landscape.

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