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Friday, April 24, 2009
Machimura bides his time
LDP veteran fully supports Aso but wants top job himself one day
By MASAMI ITO
Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura revealed that he has ambitions to someday lead the nation, but said that as chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party's largest faction, his present role is to give full support to Prime Minister Taro Aso.
"We have the highest number of members, and the moment we give up on Aso, everything will start to fall apart," the veteran lawmaker said during a recent interview. "I think it is clear that our faction must form the core support for the Aso administration."
In the past decade, the Machimura faction has produced many prime ministers — Yoshiro Mori, Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda. But the faction became the focus of negative attention after the two previous leaders, Abe and Fukuda, suddenly resigned after serving only a year.
In last September's LDP presidential election, most faction members backed Aso, after the group avoided officially endorsing one of its own lawmakers.
Aso at present is focusing on pulling Japan out of the deepening recession. Even though he has compiled a series of economic stimulus measures, his policy flip-flops and verbal gaffes have caused the support rate for his Cabinet to plunge to a critically low level.
As the support rate continued to sink, some LDP lawmakers began engaging in an anti-Aso movement, including former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, a key member of the Machimura faction. Nakagawa stopped attending faction gatherings over two months ago.
"True, there are some people who are pulling in a different direction, but a large majority of the members firmly support Aso," Machimura said, stressing the faction's solidarity.
But Nakagawa also has strong backing, especially among young lawmakers in the faction, and the group has yet to determine who to back when Aso's time at the helm comes to an end.
While stressing he has no intention of plotting to remove Aso, Machimura revealed his ambition to lead the country one day.
"It would be a lie if I said I didn't have any intention of becoming prime minister," Machimura said. "I became a politician to take responsibility for the nation's course and for the people's lives . . . if given the chance to lead the nation, I don't intend to run from it."
It remains unclear, however, how long Aso will remain in power or when he might call a Lower House general election. But no matter what happens, an LDP presidential election and a general election must both be held by the time their Lower House terms end in September.
As the prime minister alone has the right to dissolve the lower chamber and call an election, Aso would naturally aim for the best timing to keep the LDP in power.
There have been signs recently of a recovery for Aso and the party. A poll taken by the Mainichi Shimbun earlier this month revealed that his support rate went up to 24 percent, 8 points higher than the previous month.
But Machimura agreed with critics in saying that this uptrend was mainly triggered by the recent arrest and indictment of the top aide to Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa.
"I think this recovery was triggered mainly by the DPJ's decline in popularity over the Ozawa scandal and not so much by scoring points on our side," Machimura said. "But of course, Aso is trying hard, too. There are fewer verbal gaffes and he has been coming up with various economic measures . . . and I think that his actions have begun to be received positively by the people."
With only five months left until the deadline, some say Aso could dissolve the Lower House as early as May and hold an election in early June.
"Holding an election in early June may be the ideal situation, but I have a feeling we won't have enough time because of the deliberation of the extra budget" for fiscal 2009, Machimura said.
The extra budget is expected to be submitted to the Diet next week, and Aso has expressed his strong intention to have it approved as soon as possible.
But the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and Group of Eight summit that are slated in July could push the timing of the election back to a scorching August.
"The weather in Hokkaido would be nice, but it will be very tough with the heat for the people on the mainland," said Machimura, whose power base is in Hokkaido. "But of course, if we start talking like that, we'll never be able to hold an election."
Last year, Machimura received a citation for his 25 years of service as a member of the House of Representatives. During this time he has held various key posts, including education minister, foreign minister and, most recently, chief Cabinet secretary in the Fukuda administration.
Machimura won his first term as a Lower House member in 1983 from Hokkaido, the home of his grandfather, Kinya, who is known as the "father of dairy farming," and his father, Kingo, the late former governor of the prefecture.
Since then, Machimura has led an extremely busy life, serving in various ministerial and party executive posts, flying all over the world when he was foreign minister, and all the while traveling back and forth between Tokyo and Hokkaido.
Machimura said he has not had a day off since the New Year holiday. Despite the punishing schedule, the thing that keeps Machimura going, he said, is the awareness that the current lawmakers have the responsibility to create a better world to hand down to the next generation.
"We shouldn't leave them with a mountain of debt . . . or destroy the Earth's environment," he said. "The history of Japan has continued without pause and I think we need to be aware that we are just runners in a never-ending relay race.
"We need to pass the baton from one to the other, continuing to create an environment so that things will go smoothly for the next runner, while firmly passing on to the next generation the wonderful traditions, values and the beautiful nature that our forefathers handed down to us."