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Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006
'SECOND-CHANCE' PR PUSH
Abe tries to establish economic credentials
SAITAMA -- Yukinori Takahashi, 51, waited nervously with five other entrepreneurs in a spacious room at the business startup support center in Saitama Prefecture.
After a while, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister, finally arrived as TV crews and journalists waited keenly in the same room, and Takahashi began to describe his business hardships.
"I am a good example of life betting on a second chance," said Takahashi, now president of welfare service company Wisnet Co., which has more than 1,300 employees.
After listening to Takahashi's experience, Abe nodded.
"I understand many people who have started a business have had difficulty raising funds," Abe said, adding that companies should be able to borrow money based on their ideas and technology, not their past business record.
The meeting was part of a campaign by Abe to promote his "second-chance" program and show he has what it takes to steer the world's second-biggest economy.
Abe began the nationwide tour in Iwate Prefecture on July 27. After visiting several places, including Osaka and Kyoto, he wrapped up the tour Sunday in Saitama.
It was widely seen as a prelude to his official declaration, expected in late August, to run for president of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Abe's hardline stance on foreign policy, including talking tough on North Korea, has boosted his ranking in major media polls, but his ability to steer the economy is an unknown.
Unlike Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, who has served in key economic ministerial posts and has already announced he's seeking the party presidency, and hence the prime minister's seat, Abe lacks both experience and expertise in economic matters.
His current post is the only Cabinet-level one he has held.
So Abe and his supporters are on a PR offensive.
In an apparent effort to bolster his economic credentials, Abe headed a government panel that proposed in May that people be given a second career chance if they have suffered failure. This could be accomplished through a financial aid system for business owners who went under in the past.
A group of some 100 LDP members also set up in June to support Abe and promote such measures.
Even so, Abe's latest efforts with local-level entrepreneurs failed to fully satisfy the participants.
"It was a good chance (to talk about my experience), but the meeting was too short. I could not even say a tenth of what I wanted to say," said entrepreneur Takahashi, referring to the 30-minute session.
To beef up his economic credentials, Abe is also trying to form closer ties with business circles.
During his tour, he met with members of the Kansai Economic Federation (Kankeiren) and got together last month with Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the nation's most influential business lobby, the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren). They agreed that the government and Keidanren should hold meetings on a regular basis.
After the meeting in Saitama, Abe told reporters the government needs to come up with a way to provide financial support for people who failed once but want to start up a business again.
"We have to think about creating a financial support system for those who want to try again, for example, by utilizing the (government-affiliated) Japan Finance Corporation for Small and Medium Enterprise," Abe said.
Businesspeople welcomed such proposals, but some economists doubt such a program would actually work.
"The policy sounds good, but with a closer look it seems problematic," said Hideo Kumano, senior economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Inc.
Not only would such financial support through public financial entities hamper the private financial sector, such as banks, those government-backed financial institutions have tight budgets thanks to Koizumi's administrative reforms, Kumano said.
Some participants in the Saitama meeting also voiced the need to raise the consumption tax, which currently stands at 5 percent, as they want the next administration to pay more attention to public welfare services or measures to help the economy grow.
But Abe has remained mum on when or how much the controversial tax should be hiked. Instead, he has emphasized the importance of cutting government spending.
His rival, Tanigaki, meanwhile has stated the tax should be raised to at least 10 percent by early the next decade.
"Mr. Abe has not yet shown his initiative in economic policies. What we know about him so far is his stance on North Korea," said Koichi Haji, chief economist at NLI Research Institute.
Dai-ichi's Kumano said current debate among Koizumi's possible successors has ignored the most basic economic policy -- how to create domestic demand.
Given the government's planned spending reductions until early the next decade, Kumano said it will be difficult to create demand. "Without the demand, we cannot expect economic growth," he said.
Thus whoever takes the helm of government does not seem to make much difference to people engaged in business.
"What we've heard from those candidates so far are only vague policy ideas," Takahashi said. "We don't hear any specific economic policies in this suburb."