Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Run on the Fukuda Begins

When Prime Minister and Liberal Democratic Party President Fukuda Yasuo announced the recruitment of Aso Tarō as the LDP Secretary-General, many analysts hailed the appointment as a positive for the government. Handing Aso the Secretary-General position would guarantee Aso the attention and status he seems to crave while making him responsible for the government's performance. It was a set of golden handcuffs necessary for the immobilization of a potential troublemaker.

Only the move seems to have backfired on the Prime Minister.

Caption: "What? For me a dud...but then from out of left field..."

Image courtesy: Mainichi Shimbun
August 5, 2008, morning edition

Before Aso was the malcontent outsider, the sore loser of last year's leadership race, forced to wander on a meandering course throughout the backwaters of the archipelago, speaking to fellow losers and malcontents about what a great country this would be if only he were in charge. Now he is the heir apparent, the man on the threshold of power...who talks to everyone about what a great country this would be if only the government had the right policies.

Even Katō Kōichi, the king of cluelessness, the avatar of the obvious, has managed to notice the deleterious side effect of bringing Aso into the central leadership group:

"Secretary-General Aso is placed at the front and center, and has become unfortunately quite famous. I am afraid that the sense that Mr. Fukuda is still in existence has grown rather tenuous."*
Aso's wolfish grin and willingness to say just about anything also does little to help raise the public's appreciation of the serious, harried and decidedly owlish Fukuda.

Aso has also not played a helpful role regarding the most contentious issue of the fall legislative calendar: the renewal of the legislation authorizing the dispatch of Maritime Self Defense Forces ships to the Indian Ocean.

A renewal of the current legislation has no chance of passing save by override; the minimal amount of time necessary for an override is sixty days after the House of Representatives approves a piece of legislation. In order to preserve the dispatch, supposedly the symbol of Japan's integration in the worldwide struggle with terrorism, it would be imperative for all the members of the LDP's central core leadership to agree to do two things

1) push the New Komeitō to accept a late August start of the session. Even if the New Komeitō in the end betrays the coalition and refuses to vote for the override , at least there will have been the time in the Diet session to attempt the maneuver. Letting the start of the Diet session slip away into mid-September - the New Komeitō's preferred starting time - would leave no doubt that Fukuda's administration has no sticks to go along with its carrots.

2) encourage some members of the Democratic Party in the House of Councillors to see the wisdom of the dispatch--or the wisdom of a dispatch helping guard the sea lines of communication through which Japan-bound tankers sail, whatever -- and vote against their party "in service of the national interest"

Secretary-General Aso, however, has not shown much of an interest in fostering the achievement of either of these two goals. There is little evidence of his leaning on the leadership of the New Komeitō, telling them to stop fooling around and accept the original Diet session starting date. Worse, on his first visit to the House of Councillors as Secretary-General, in his courtesy call to Speaker Eda Satsuki (a Democrat, but on sabbatical from the party) he blurted out his now infamous remark indirectly associating the takeover of the Diet by the Democratic Party with the rise to power of the Nazis.

Way to build bridges to members of the Democratic Party, Francisco! Way to get them to feel loved!

In addition to torpedoing the government's planning for fall session, Aso has shown himself to be a remarkably disinterested party official. Like a bad dog, he will not stay. True, it is Obon season - a time when many leave the capital region on trips of various kinds. Does Aso really have to be out touring though, missing two ruling coalition general planning meetings in a row? He only just started in his new job two weeks ago. And it is not as though the folks out in the hinterlands need to see him: since losing the leadership battle in September last year, he has given over 160 speeches to audiences in the chihō.

Makes one almost think he is more interested in bolstering his standing with the local LDP chapters, rather than helping Fukuda lead the party, doesn't it?

* * *

The Fukuda administration is entering a crucial two week period. It has to cajole the New Komeitō into accepting an early start for the extraordinary Diet session. Such a concession is a minimal quid-pro-quo for the party's gleefully pressuring the LDP into sacrificing the plan to bring the budget into primary balance in favor of the New Komeitō's program of profligate fiscal excess...or as one observer of the process put it:

"It is best to call the proposals 'tossing roses to the crowds' (baramaki) " **

At the last ruling coalition strategy meeting - which Aso conveniently missed.

If Fukuda cannot force the New Komeitō to accept an August or at least first week of September opening for the extraordinary Diet session, then the sand will start spilling out of the hourglass. Fukuda's low popularity ratings and Aso's obvious desire to be the LDP's standard bearer in the next House of Representatives election will converge, leading to showdown.

Unlike my friend Okumura Jun, I believe that the party will find a way of disposing of Fukuda swiftly, despite his own willingness to fight on.


* Nihon Keizai Shimbun, August 13, 2008. Morning edition, page 2 .

** Sankei Shimbun, August 12, 2008. Morning edition, page 2 .

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