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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008

SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Fukuda girds to stick it out till after Hokkaido summit

Akihiro Ota, head of Komeito, was all smiles when he came out of a two-hour, one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, not necessarily because of the good wine that was served but rather because the prime minister reportedly assured him that there would be no general elections anytime soon.

The central theme of the meeting was how to steer the final days of the Diet's extraordinary session. Fukuda had been pressing the Ota-led junior partner of the governing coalition to cooperate with the Liberal Democratic Party in further extending the Diet session so that a bill to enable the Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume supplying fuel to the United States and other countries' naval ships in the Indian Ocean would clear the legislature. A second vote of approval — by a two-thirds majority — was needed in the Lower House for the bill to be enacted.

Some of the Komeito lawmakers were afraid, however, that if the bill was rammed through the Diet with the rarely used tactic of a second vote, the Democratic Party of Japan might submit a censure motion against Fukuda in the Upper House, where the DPJ and other opposition groups hold a majority, forcing the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House and call general elections.

With the religious group Soka Gakkai, the parent body of Komeito, opposed to early general elections, Ota was charged with the task of persuading Fukuda not to dissolve the Lower House "anytime soon."

According to sources close to the meeting, the two agreed that "it would be desirable to put off general elections at least until the summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations (to be held in Toya, Hokkaido) in July."

This view seems to have been substantiated by Fukuda's remarks to reporters on Dec. 14 that before exercising his prerogative of dissolving the Lower House, he would have to take other issues into consideration such as the legislative deliberations on the budget bills for the fiscal year starting in April, and that it would be outrageous to call general elections while the summit meeting is in session.

To the prime minister of Japan, the annual G8 summit represents a rare opportunity to speak up at the international level. Especially with Japan as the host nation and the prime minister due to serve as the meeting chairman, he regards this as an arena for enhancing national prestige, as if it were the Olympics.

At a photo session of a summit held outside of Japan, the prime minister stands at the far end of participants, not because he is not fluent in English but because he and his British, German, Italian and Canadian counterparts are not heads of state and, therefore, are lower in ranking compared with the presidents of the United States, France and Russia.

When Japan hosts the summit, the prime minister can stand right in the middle and claim to be a "global leader." That, presumably, was one of the factors that led Fukuda and Ota to agree that the general elections should be put off until after the summit as they apparently hoped Fukuda's performance there would serve to shore up the public image of the governing coalition.

This is because many leading political figures in the coalition believe Japan has both expertise and a good track record with regard to two principal issues likely to be taken up at the summit: prevention of global warming and stepped-up aid to Africa.

A ranking official of the Foreign Ministry has, however, cautioned that Japan is no longer a leader in either of these two issues. It is true that, since 1993, Japan has hosted the Tokyo International Conference on African Development every five years and that during the 1990s Japan was rightfully able to claim to be the biggest donor to a number of African nations like Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Botswana.

"Not anymore," points out the official. "Today, Japan is not the biggest aid provider to any African country."

The Foreign Ministry hoped that with the combination of Fukuda and his chief Cabinet secretary, Nobutaka Machimura, a budget might be secured to boost Japan's aid to Africa, but the complicated legislative situations have so far prevented this dream from coming true.

As for the global warming issue, Fukuda is faced with the need to follow up on the long-term vision of keeping this planet "beautiful," as presented at last year's G8 summit by his immediate predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

Abe worked hard to serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and proudly stated that his proposal was well accepted by the other participants as it was incorporated in a joint statement.

The truth is, however, that he was so eager not to antagonize Washington that he failed to go any further than presenting a vague target of reducing global carbon emissions by half.

Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita told an Upper House committee meeting in October that following up on Abe's proposal was of utmost importance and that Japan would have to come up with concrete targets. This, however, is seen as no more than the "personal views" of Kamoshita or the Environment Ministry at best.

Indeed, the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade is staunchly opposed to binding the nation to any target for reducing carbon emissions and fights back every time the Environment Ministry tries to make a concrete move in that direction.

In the New Year issue of the LDP's official publication, Fukuda stated that Japan would play a leading role in protecting the environment at the July summit. It is doubtful, however, that he has any specific ideas for doing so. (At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Fukuda proposed a 30 percent improvement in global energy efficiency by 2020 and setting carbon reduction targets for major carbon emitters.)

Nobody knows whether the present administration can survive until the July summit. Even if it does, it is not clear whether the meeting would serve to give a boost to Fukuda's position. There is an old saying in Japan that, in politics, you cannot see an inch ahead.

In the past, Japan has hosted four annual summit meetings of the world's most industrialized nations, and interestingly enough, in each of those years, the nation went to the polls to elect the members of the Lower House. What's more, the LDP was able to win a majority only once — in 1986 under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

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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