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Monday, Sept. 24, 2007
LITTLE ROOM TO MANEUVER
Hawks expected to push Fukuda hard
By MASAMI ITO
New Liberal Democratic Party President Yasuo Fukuda is known as an advocate of relatively conciliatory policies, so after a year with the hawkish Shinzo Abe in power the public may be expecting a major shift in various policy areas, including diplomacy and the Yasukuni Shrine issue.
Political analysts, however, are doubtful there will be much of a drastic change now that Fukuda has been elected head of the LDP and is set to become prime minister on Tuesday.
"What one prime minister wants to do personally and whether or not he will be able to move forward with his policies are two different things," said Takeshi Sasaki, a political science professor at Gakushuin University. "A perfect example of this is Abe himself."
Abe pushed forward his conservative ideas by ramming a controversial bill through the Diet to revise the Fundamental Law of Education to instill patriotism in the classroom, and he stressed his vague but conservative ideology for a "beautiful country." But at the same time, Sasaki pointed out, Abe suppressed much of his hawkish tendencies.
Because Abe has always been a strong advocate of Yasukuni visits, critics had expected him to take a stern attitude toward Japan's neighboring Asian countries. But the first thing he did after becoming prime minister was to visit China and South Korea to smooth strained relations.
Political observers say Fukuda will have difficulty pushing his dovish policies because he is likely to face strong opposition from conservative forces within his own party.
"Fukuda has the motivation (to push dovish policies) . . . but whether he will actually be able to act on his convictions is the issue," Sasaki said. "As long as Abe was able to (control) the LDP's hawks, it was all right — but that is not possible anymore. So Fukuda will be faced with raw" demands from hawkish LDP lawmakers.
The Yasukuni issue is a prime example.
Fukuda has been vague about many policy areas, but one thing he has clearly declared is that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine. Conservative lawmakers like Yoshinobu Shimamura, who heads a group of Diet members advocating visits to the war-tainted shrine, are already criticizing this "weak" approach.
Prime ministers' visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined, have been a cause of friction between Japan and its neighboring Asian countries.
"The reason why visits to Yasukuni have become so complicated in the first place is because of the weak-kneed attitude of Diet members," Shimamura said. "It is a matter of course that we pay respect to the people who sacrificed their lives for our country."
Gakushuin's Sasaki also pointed out that the fallout from Abe's disastrous administration is so severe that Fukuda will have to spend most of his time and energy digging his party out of the hole it is now in.
When Abe became prime minister last September, his Cabinet had a 65 percent support rate, according to a Kyodo News survey.
But public opinion steadily went downhill as the months passed because of money-related scandals and verbal gaffes by Cabinet ministers and key lawmakers. Under his leadership, five ministers had to be replaced, including the most recent casualty, farm minister Takehiko Endo, who stepped down over a money scandal only eight days after he was appointed.
"Whether (Abe's policies) were good or bad, (he) was eager to push his policies forward," Sasaki said. "But (Abe) wasn't interested in politics — he didn't make sure he had a firm foothold nor did he (react quickly) when scandals involving Cabinet ministers came to light."
Former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki told The Japan Times that one of the biggest problems with Abe's government was that it was focused only on the ideology of the state — Abe's image of "a beautiful country" — and did not look at the issues from the perspective of the public.
"The people are experiencing uncertainty over various issues like the pension system and depopulation — issues that are directly linked to their lives," Tanigaki said. "We need to change directions with our policies and the methods we use to (advance) politics. . . . Like Mr. Fukuda said, we need to create a society that 'gives security to the elderly and hope to the young.' "
However, the vagueness of Fukuda's policies leaves room for doubt that he will be able to achieve concrete results, and the LDP's crushing defeat in the July Upper House election has left him and the LDP with a very tough road to navigate.
"When you lose that badly (in an election), lawmakers naturally will become agitated and (the leader) will lose centripetal force," Tanigaki said.
Because the LDP-led coalition lost its majority in the Upper House, getting its bills through the Diet has become extremely difficult.
Fukuda led the LDP's presidential campaign from early on, gaining support from most of the party's factions under the expectation that he can regain public support.
But Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University, is doubtful.
"Fukuda may have gained the support of his party members, but that definitely is not enough to become a strong leader of a nation," Yamaguchi said. "The strength of leadership comes from the will of the public and to gain this, (Fukuda) needs to dissolve the Lower House and call for a general election," he said.
The LDP, having already lost control of the Upper House, needs to win in the next Lower House election to maintain its power in the Diet.
"What the LDP needs is not to be afraid of failure, not to be afraid of becoming a minority," Yamaguchi said. "What the LDP needs is to stir up its lawmakers' combative spirit. . . . If it continues to show weakness — the fear of losing in the election — the Japanese people will continue to detach themselves from the party."