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Saturday, May 8, 2004

Exit seen as pre-election damage control

By Reiji Yoshida Staff Writer While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda's resignation came as a surprise to many, Nagata-cho watchers described it as damage control in the leadup to the House of Councilors election in July.

Political commentator Kenzo Uchida said the move was part of the usual power games played out before an election.

"On the one hand, it's only natural that Fukuda should resign" due to his poor handling of the pension fiasco, Uchida said.

Fukuda's staff claimed they were caught off guard.

"We learned about it exactly the same time as you did during the news conference," said one of Fukuda's four secretaries. Fukuda said he made the decision Thursday, and looked composed when addressing reporters that evening.

Fukuda refused to disclose the pension premium payment records of members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet. He said such records are the lawmakers' private information, and must be protected.

He later revealed that he was among those who had not made the compulsory payments.

"I'd like to apologize to the nation for fanning people's distrust in politics," he said at the news conference when he announced his resignation.

On the other hand, Uchida said Fukuda's resignation will turn up the heat on Naoto Kan, chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, who has also admitted not paying pension premiums in 1996, when he was welfare minister.

Kan is expected to face mounting political pressure to resign.

Immediately after Fukuda's announcement, Kan was mobbed by reporters wanting to know whether he will also step down.

Uchida said, "It's a battle between the Liberal Democratic Party and the DPJ" to control the damage caused by the pension scandal and win points before the Upper House election.

"Fukuda must have thought it was good timing to quit," said Hisayuki Miyake, another political commentator.

Government-sponsored pension reform bills appear set for approval by the House of Representatives early next week, now that the ruling and opposition camps have agreed on amendments to the bills, Miyake said.

Fukuda's resignation, coming at this time, will deal a blow to the DPJ, while easing the pressure on six other Cabinet members who have also admitted that they had not paid pension premiums, he said.

Fukuda's departure could also deal a heavy blow to the administration of Koizumi, for whom he was a powerful ally.

Fukuda had considerable experience in the private sector before becoming a lawmaker, and is known for his practical ability in handling various issues.

His cool, composed behavior stands in stark contrast with that of Koizumi, Uchida said.

"Koizumi acts by intuition," he said. The presence of "Fukuda gave the administration a sense of stability."

Fukuda played a key role in shaping foreign policy in recent months. Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, a former bureaucrat without a Diet seat, meanwhile exerts little influence over lawmakers within the ruling coalition.

"The Prime Minister's Official Residence and the Foreign Ministry have been wheels sharing the same axle," a senior Foreign Ministry official said, suggesting the Cabinet secretariat under Fukuda played a major role in shaping foreign policy.

Other bureaucrats also said they were baffled by Fukuda's sudden resignation, as they depended on his judgment in drafting administration policies other than just those pertaining to diplomacy.

Fukuda "bore a heavy burden, as government officials would ask for his instructions on small matters that would not normally require his advice," said a senior Cabinet official who asked not to be named.

The official said he would continue to informally ask Fukuda for help on policy matters, including bilateral negotiations with North Korea pertaining to Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese nationals.

Koizumi also said Friday: "I asked (Fukuda) to reconsider. But he would not withdraw what he had said. His determination was firm."



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The Japan Times

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