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Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008
Fukuda reshuffles Cabinet, LDP leaders
Shakeup an attempt to boost public support
By REIJI YOSHIDA, SETSUKO KAMIYA and KAZUAKI NAGATA
To boost his acutely low popularity, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda reshuffled his Cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party executives Friday, replacing 13 of his 17 ministers.
Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who last year vied against Fukuda for the LDP presidency, and thus the prime ministership, was again named party secretary general, a post he briefly held under Fukuda's predecessor.
But whether Fukuda's bid will succeed still remains a question mark, because many Cabinet members are old-timers with experience and competence but may have little voter appeal.
Fukuda said his new team will concentrate on pushing policies forward, denying once again the possibility of holding a general election in the near future.
"Looking at social conditions and the economy, I don't think it's time to discuss when to dissolve the Lower House," Fukuda said. "This is the time to implement policies to reduce people's worries and show a vision for the future."
Key figures of Fukuda's new Cabinet include new economic and fiscal policy chief Kaoru Yosano, a longtime advocate of tax hikes to cover snowballing government debts and increasing social security costs.
Two popular picks, however, are ex-posts minister Seiko Noda, named the new consumer affairs minister, and Kyoko Nakayama, minister in charge of the Pyongyang abductions as well as population and gender equality issues.
Noda has been long regarded as a possible candidate to be the first female prime minister. Nakayama was a popular government official for her tough stance against North Korea over its 1970s and '80s abductions of Japanese.
One surprise is the reappointment of Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, who is often criticized for mishandling of policy matters and rumored to have been kept at arm's length by Fukuda.
Former LDP Secretary General Bunmei Ibuki was named finance minister, LDP policy chief Sadakazu Tanigaki became the infrastructure minister and LDP General Council Chairman Toshihiro Nikai is now the trade minister. These veterans are not seen as adding a fresh face, however, to the new Cabinet lineup.
A tight political schedule prevented Fukuda from forming his own Cabinet when he succeeded Shinzo Abe, who abruptly resigned last September. Fukuda thus inherited 15 of Abe's 17 ministers.
Fukuda reportedly feared making hasty selections, fearing a quick pick could turn out to be tainted by corruption, a problem that plagued Abe. Further scandal could deal a fatal blow to his already unpopular administration.
Many prime ministers in the past have reshuffled their Cabinets to boost their popularity by bringing in fresh members, while at the same time working off the frustration of middle-ranking party members eager to win Cabinet seats.
On his selection of Aso, 67, as secretary general, Fukuda said he had asked him to be part of his Cabinet last September but was turned down.
"I would like Aso to firmly lead the LDP," Fukuda said. The appointment "was something that I had been considering for a while."
Takashi Sasagawa, 72, once chairman of the House of Representatives steering committee, is now chairman of the LDP General Council, while former education minister Kosuke Hori, 73, was appointed head of the LDP Policy Research Council. Makoto Koga, 67, was reappointed chief of the election strategy council.
"The environment surrounding the LDP has never been this difficult since the party was established in 1955," Aso told reporters at party headquarters in Tokyo. "It's very important that the party as a whole (deal with the crisis)."
The Cabinet and LDP have been having difficulty following their agenda and passing key legislation since losing the July 2007 Upper House election, which left the Diet divided between the ruling and opposition camps for the first time in recent memory.
In addition to the challenges in the divided Diet, Aso said the LDP must work swiftly to deal with the high price of gasoline and other items that are hitting the lives of the public.
"Having a new structure does not mean everything will start running smoothly," Aso said of the new executives. "We will do our best to overcome this tough time."
Aso is popular with the public, and many believe him to be the most prominent candidate to take over the party. Aso's appointment to the LDP's No. 2 post is thus being viewed as a desperate attempt by Fukuda to win back public support for the party.
Aso heads one of the smallest factions in the LDP. Joining hands with Fukuda will allow him to form amicable relations with the largest faction, to which Fukuda belongs.
Koga leads his own faction, while Sasagawa belongs to another and Hori is independent.
Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hokkaido University, said that Aso, who is not necessarily a close Fukuda ally, had to accept the prime minister's request to help him lead the LDP, which is in desperate need of unity.
Aso served as LDP secretary general for just a month after Abe reshuffled his Cabinet last August following the LDP's crushing defeat in the July 2007 Upper House election.
After Abe resigned in September due to health problems, Aso was defeated by Fukuda in the party's presidential election, which took place shortly afterward. He turned down an offer from Fukuda to serve on the Cabinet or become an LDP executive.
Aso said, "Honestly speaking, in this time when the prime minister asked for my support, I felt as a politician that it was my responsibility and duty to answer the call, regardless of my personal feelings."
Koga's position as election strategist was created last year by Fukuda when he became LDP president and started making plans on how to win the next general election.