Monday, September 01, 2014

A Bogus Cabinet Reshuffle?

The big news this week is Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's planned reshuffle of his Cabinet on Wednesday. The cabinet lineup is looking rather long in the tooth; it is indeed the longest-lasting unreformed lineup in history (Link). It has had to weather some rather nasty fights -- the initiation of construction of the Futenma replacement facility at Henoko, the constant grind of bad news out of Fukushima Daiichi, the forcible passages of the Special Secrets Act and the Cabinet decision on collective self defense -- and looks a bit ragged for all its continuing popularity as measured against the support numbers of previous Cabinets. There is also a huge cohort of mid-career Liberal Democratic Party members who have never served in a cabinet post (not surprising: there was a change in government in 2009). Finally, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo feels compelled to matching his rhetoric on greater opportunities for women in public life with action, increasing the number of women in his cabinet from two to perhaps six (the pool of candidates is too small to go any higher).

Given the importance of the atmospherics, rather than the policy preferences of the various candidates for office, in the selection process, the buildup to this cabinet reshuffle has been inadroit. No, let us not be coy. It has been a farce...and it is not getting any better.

Abe mulling Obuchi as LDP's No. 2
Yomiuri Shimbun

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering appointing junior lawmaker Yuko Obuchi as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party as he is set to reshuffle his Cabinet and party executive lineup, party sources said.

The prime minister hopes to form an internal consensus about his idea of granting Obuchi, 40, a House of Representatives member, the second most important position in the LDP, by confirming the wishes of the leadership of the LDP’s Nukaga faction to which she belongs, according to the sources.


Obuchi is the second daughter of the late former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. If her appointment is realized, she will be the youngest LDP member and first woman to take the post of party secretary general.

The sources said Abe aims to demonstrate his stance of proactively promoting women and create an image of the LDP renovating itself.

By gaining support from the public with these steps, Abe aims to overcome political battles over the security legislation and the next unified local elections...

(Link to article)
The last time I looked, and that was today, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party is a serious, serious job. It requires an intense understanding of policy, party financial and personnel matters. It is a lightning rod, having to deal with intra-party resentment, political feuds, local versus national politics and demands for funds. It is also a very public post, with the secretary-general frequently having to interact with the news media as the party's top representative.

A nightmare, in other words.

Into this spot Abe purportedly wants to slot a five-term (5 terms is the usual minimum number of elections for consideration for a first cabinet posting) House of Representatives member, a legacy member with but a single stint in a minor, invented cabinet post, as not just the first woman but the youngest person ever to serve as secretary-general of the only party in Japan which really matters.


I know that the Fukuda, now Machimura, Faction -- Prime Minister Abe's and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide's faction -- is fundamentally at odds with the Tanaka, now Nukaga, Faction. However, even as an act of exquisite historical spite, the appointment of Obuchi as the LDP's Secretary-General is beyond the pale. Everyone likes Obuchi-san; no one is frightened of her or feels intimidated by her. One does not have to read Machiavelli to realize how the drama will end.

Indeed, the entire process of selecting this new Cabinet and LDP party officer lineup has been surreal.

First, the process of sculpting a new administration and party leadership, which was supposed interspersed and intertwined with rounds of golf, was completely overwhelmed by the landslides of Hiroshima. Abe had to commute from his vacation home to the Kantei, where he could do exacly nothing about the number of those who died and the on-again, off-again rescue and recovery efforts.

Second, the seemingly all-important replacement of Ishiba Shigeru as Secretary-General spun out of Team Abe's control. Even a child could see there was zero chance that Ishiba would accept the thankless made-up job of minister of revising legislation to implement of the July 1 Cabinet Decision on collective self-defense. When economic developments and ugly, incoherent, lurching management of nuclear reactor restarts, the Special Secrets Act (due to go into effect in December) and collective self defense have darkened the outlook for Abe, the incentives for Ishiba all point to turning down the offer and preparing for a run at the LDP presidency next fall. That run to replace Abe as LDP leader is still alive and indeed chances for it are improved by Ishiba's supposed turnaround on Friday. At a highly anticipated "summit meeting" between Ishiba and Abe at the Prime Minister's Residence Ishiba agreed to consider accepting a cabinet position other than the military legislation one (Link). The breadth of the grin on Ishiba's face as he spoke to reporters at the Kantei showed it was the prime minister who was in the desperate, sweating wheeler-dealer role and Ishiba in the role of magnanimous and harmonious party magnate...

...all of which absolutely no sense because whoever is serving in the post of secretary-general will be responsible for success or failure of LDP candidates in three incredibly difficult and highly visible elections: the Fukushima gubernatorial contest, the Okinawa gubernatorial contest and the April 2015 unified local elections. The chances of the LDP's candidates prevailing in all three races are basically nil. The question facing the party's secretary-general is how to minimize the losses.

To whit: why forcibly replace Ishiba, when events are likely to usher in his disgrace and resignation?

UNLESS, of course (and I am indebted to my friend T.K. for this line of reasoning) the cabinet reshuffle is just a front, a slapping up of freshly painted, smiling faces for an abbreviated Diet session where the only work done is the decision to proceed with the rise of the consumption tax from the current 8% to 10%, followed by a Diet dissolution. The consequent House of Representatives election would then be billed as a virtual referendum on the tax decision and the first two years of Abe 2.0.

If that is the game afoot then a lot -- the muted Obuchi appointment, the desperate need to get Ishiba out of the way -- starts to make sense. The LDP is likely to get its butt handed to it in local elections over the next few months due situations (the continuing environmental disaster at Fukushima Daiichi; the presence of U.S. Forces on Okinawa; rural economic decay) beyond any immediate solution. So why let the calendar and chronic problems rule the party, when the prime minister/LDP president can just derail the train of events? Why not change the subject, in a big way? Why wait, when the opposition parties which have few institutional supporters and zero inspiring leaders, are unready to defend even the few seats they control in the House?

So what we are to see on September 3 is not perhaps not so much a bogus cabinet reshuffle as a mendacious one -- tactically mendacious, as I am fond of saying.

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