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Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012
A new lineup but the same old story
By MASAMI ITO and NATSUKO FUKUE
The familiar faces in the Cabinet's new lineup indicate Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is once more prioritizing internal unity to prevent his Democratic Party of Japan from hemorrhaging any more members, political observers said.
The ruling party finds itself at a critical juncture, as strong internal opposition to Noda's key policies, notably his crusade to hike the consumption tax, has put it on the verge of losing its Lower House majority.
To avert such a catastrophic scenario, Noda did his utmost to maintain a sense of balance within the party.
And by reshuffling 10 of his ministers but retaining DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi, who is opposed to holding a general election in the near future, analysts including Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University, said Noda is now likely to push back a dissolution of the Lower House until the new year.
The new leadership will simply continue to handle the issues still left on the table, including hammering out the details of the tax hike and social security reform, passing a deficit-covering bond bill to fund a large portion of the fiscal 2012 budget, and dealing with the diplomatic fallout over Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands.
"Noda is in such a critical state that he had no choice but to form a lineup that minimizes internal friction," Tanifuji said.
"The new Cabinet has no new message or goal, and its objective is just to continue tackling unfinished business — and that won't be completed before the end of the year."
Tanifuji also stressed the lack of time left for Noda to clear his in-tray as he struggles to enact the bond bill and other pending legislation, and noted that his government will soon have to start compiling a draft for the fiscal 2013 budget regardless of resistance from the Liberal Democratic Party.
New LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba stressed over the weekend that there is no way the main opposition party will allow the DPJ to remain in power long enough to draft the next budget.
Still, "the bond bill has to be enacted and the LDP will have to compromise because the public would turn against the LDP if it continues to put up a fight. . . . And I don't think the DPJ would just abandon drafting the budget," Tanifuji said. "That means (the election) will have to be pushed back to next year."
Noda's intention to postpone a dissolution of the Lower House, despite promising the LDP and opposition ally New Komeito that he would do so "soon," have been evident in the markedly different tone of his recent statements on the matter.
In August, Noda assured Sadakazu Tanigaki, then president of the LDP, and New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi that he would dissolve the lower chamber and call a snap election sometime soon in exchange for their support in clearing the tax hike bill through the divided Diet.
But Tanigaki then turned round and submitted a censure motion against Noda, in effect declaring war against his administration.
Last week, Noda vaguely told DPJ lawmakers that the election would be held "one of these days," in an attempt to satisfy many of the party's members who are in danger of losing their seats in the next Lower House election.
New LDP President Shinzo Abe is not about to sit back and let Noda off the hook so easily, however.
On Monday, the LDP and New Komeito agreed to demand a dissolution of the Lower House before year's end, and, crucially, if eight or more lawmakers were to quit the DPJ, the opposition camp could easily pass a vote of no confidence against the prime minister and his Cabinet. Noda and his team would then be forced to resign en masse or the prime minister would have to dissolve the Lower House.
"It is impossible to foresee exactly what will happen" given the current conditions, said Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women's College.
"But I am under the impression that the new lineup was the best Noda could come up with. With the new Cabinet, he wants to carry on as long as possible by postponing a dissolution of the Lower House."
Ishizawa also pointed out that the new lineup lacks the capacity to improve the situation and only served to underscore the shortage of DPJ lawmakers capable of handling a ministerial portfolio.
In a game of musical chairs involving the Cabinet and the DPJ leadership, newly appointed ministers include former DPJ policy chief and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara as head of national strategy, former Diet affairs chief Koriki Jojima as finance minister, and former acting DPJ Secretary General Shinji Tarutoko as internal affairs minister.
Heading in the opposite direction, former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono was appointed the party's new policy chief and former Finance Minister Jun Azumi its acting secretary general.
"I can't see any eagerness (on Noda's part) to accept a challenge or improve his administration," Ishizawa said. "(Noda) probably handed posts to DPJ executive members such as Tarutoko thinking this may be their last chance" to become ministers before the next election.
Amid strong concern over ties with China, which have degenerated alarmingly since the government in September nationalized three of the Senkaku islets despite Beijing's own territorial claims, Noda decided to stick with Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba in the interests of continuity.
In addition, new education minister Makiko Tanaka, a former outspoken foreign minister in the Koizumi administrations, is the daughter of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who normalized diplomatic ties with China in 1972.
But experts brushed aside speculation that her appointment is intended to demonstrate Tokyo's eagerness to improve relations with Beijing, and also rejected the possibility that Tanaka's popularity might boost support for Noda's administration among the public.
"Noda can't expect the Cabinet's support ratings to go up with this lineup. . . . I think that Tanaka's popularity is a thing of the past, just like (her father normalizing relations with Beijing) is also a thing of the past," Waseda University's Tanifuji said.
Recent polls show the LDP is leading in the popularity stakes, but most pundits believe that no single party will be able to win an outright Lower House majority in the next election and at this point, it remains unclear whether the DPJ would be part of the next ruling coalition.
For a while, the media focused on the possibility of the LDP teaming up with popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and his new political party, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), after the next election, but experts say Hashimoto's popularity has already passed its peak and it is uncertain what would result from such an alliance.
Under another potential scenario, the LDP and the DPJ could form a grand coalition to overcome political gridlock in the Diet.
"The unstable political situation will continue to drift . . . and the next Lower House poll is unlikely to produce a clear winner," Tanifuji said.
"This political situation is very unfortunate for the people because now, more than ever, they are in need of strong leadership to deal with diplomatic issues and social change."