Who’s in charge here?

MTC asks an extremely pertinent question about which I have been wondering all week.

While pleasantly surprised by the new cabinet, MTC wonders who exactly was responsible for picking the new lineup. Mr. Abe no doubt has many people whispering in his ear — perhaps he would think more clearly if that wasn’t the case — but it is necessary to ask whose guidance was decisive in shaping the new cabinet.

And now that the cabinet and the new party leadership are in place, it’s equally important to ask who will be calling the shots; I remain unconvinced that the new cabinet is Mr. Abe’s in anything but name only. Not his agenda, not his way of operating — and perhaps not even his people.

One major player will no doubt be new LDP secretary-general Aso Taro. Asahi writes today about Aso’s consolidation of power through his control over the new personnel appointments, through which he sought to disarm critics and favor the factions (leading to new widely voiced fear that this cabinet marks a return to the old LDP). For example, Aso named Kosaka Kenji, organizer of an anti-Abe study group, as deputy of the party’s Diet strategy committee. In the process, the influence of Mr. Koizumi within the party may be waning, as his followers in the Koizumi non-faction, anti-faction faction have found themselves blocked from power. Koizumi’s followers, however, insist that it will benefit them in the long run: “This latest lineup is a reversion. With this, there will be a rise in new Diet members who think ‘I will not join a faction.'”

I think such optimism might be misplaced, but at the same time, despair about the return of the old LDP is also misplaced. The old LDP has been destroyed, as promised by Mr. Koizumi. There is no going back to the old way of collusion between bureaucracy and LDP policy specialists and factions, at the expense of the cabinet.

What seems to be emerging instead is a tighter union between party and cabinet. The policy initiating powers of the Kantei have grown, but more at the expense of PARC than of the bureaucracy, which seems to have recovered, at least partially, from its mid-1990s nadir. (The vacuum created by Mr. Abe’s poor leadership has undoubtedly helped this process along.) In the new cabinet, we may see a more cohesive LDP working with the bureaucracy as a whole to form policy, thanks to the presence of Mr. Yosano at the head of cabinet secretariat. An article in today’s Asahi, not online of course, talks about the new chief cabinet secretary’s “respect for the bureaucracy,” suggesting that with his hand at the controls of government, the LDP will move further away from the anti-bureaucratic populism of Mr. Koizumi.

Recognizing the shifting balance is an important corrective, at least partially, to the argument made by Tomohito Shinoda in his recent book Koizumi Diplomacy, in which he outlines the emergence of the Kantei as a policy actor in its own right, especially in security policy. Shinoda is not wrong to point to various cases in the past two decades in which the Kantei has played a decisive role in decision making, but as the title implies, the key factor in his cases was often having the right personnel in place (whether Mr. Ozawa as an assistant CCS in the late 1980s or Mr. Koizumi as prime minister) than any permanent institutional change. If there’s one constant in Japanese politics, it’s that the formal institutions and rules often matter less than the informal arrangements grounded in custom, culture, and personality. The balance of power within the government can change greatly depending on who is sitting where.

Accordingly, the bureaucracy’s comeback is due to continue under the second Abe cabinet, thanks both to accommodative, cautious leadership in the LDP and stalemate due to the DPJ’s control of the Upper House.

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