From Team Abe to Team LDP

The first day of the Fukuda cabinet has passed, and the new prime minister has already put himself in about as advantageous a position as possible in light of the difficult circumstances in which he has taken office.

Criticism from the opposition and the media about the return of the factions notwithstanding, Mr. Fukuda has ensured that the party’s respected elders are at his side, responsible for the government — they will not be sniping at him from the sidelines. While the question of the LDP’s unruly conservative ideologues remains, in the meantime Mr. Fukuda has ensured that cabinet and party leadership will serve him. The Fukuda cabinet will not be characterized by a power vacuum at the top, unlike in the Abe cabinet. Significantly, the Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC), which has historically served as the primary organ by which backbenchers and zoku giin could exert bottom-up influence on policy making, is in the hands of Mr. Tanigaki, who is undoubtedly just grateful to be back in power after a year in the wilderness and thus will (gladly?) be taking marching orders from the prime minister.

So I have to disagree with Garrett DeOrio on this: the inclusion of faction chiefs is not automatically a bad thing. Indeed, for all the talk about the return of the factions, this argument seems odd in light of Mr. Fukuda’s being the fourth consecutive prime minister from the Machimura faction. The inclusion of faction leaders in the cabinet might be more a sign of just how cheaply their support can be bought, rather than a sign of the undue influence the factions are prepared to wield over policy. (And it is necessary to recall that the factions have not historically been cohesive ideological units, being more about personal and monetary ties than about policy agendas — the zoku have been as or more important for policy making purposes.)

Meanwhile, he has made a wise choice in assembling his foreign policy team, shifting Mr. Komura from defense to foreign affairs and giving the defense portfolio to Ishiba Shigeru, defense policy wonk and JDA chief under Mr. Koizumi. With Mr. Ishiba’s inclusion in the cabinet, the Fukuda cabinet now includes perhaps the two most prominent critics of Mr. Abe’s decision to remain in office after the July landslide, the other being Mr. Masuzoe. If Mr. Fukuda is serious about sending a message that he recognizes the LDP’s problems and seeks to learn from Mr. Abe’s mistakes, including internal “dissidents” is a good way to start. Mr. Ishiba’s appointment will undoubtedly also placate Washington, as Mr. Ishiba is a prominent but sensible advocate of closer US-Japan defense cooperation who pushed hard for a Japanese contribution to Iraqi reconstruction. (The US will also no doubt be pleased by Mr. Fukuda’s intention to visit Washington in November, hopefully with a new anti-terror law in hand — or at least a new law in the pipeline.) When it comes to expertise on defense matters, Mr. Ishiba can go toe-to-toe with any of the DPJ’s defense wonks, important considering that the point of contention this term is the anti-terror special measures law, a new version of which Mr. Fukuda intends to submit this Diet session. (And his being telegenic won’t hurt the government’s attempt to spin reports that the MSDF, in fact, assisted Operation Iraqi Freedom illegally.)

Beyond consolidating his support within the LDP, Mr. Fukuda has acted quickly to calm the fears of Komeito, the LDP’s nervous coalition partner. Komeito’s leadership is undoubtedly thrilled to see Mr. Abe replaced with Mr. Fukuda, seeing as how the former exposed the extent to which Komeito had sold out its principles for the sake of holding power with the LDP. Mr. Fukuda has agreed to support two legislative proposals favored by Komeito, a freeze on plans to raise the burden of elderly health care born by patients and a political funds law revision that makes it a requirement to attach all receipts for expenses exceeding one yen to funds reports (meaning that support for this version of the political funds control revision effectively has uniform support among the government coalition and the DPJ, although Mr. Ozawa took care to emphasize that the LDP has come along reluctantly). Whatever threat Komeito posed to the durability of the coalition under Mr. Abe has been more or less neutralized.

That leaves the DPJ. Mr. Ozawa has welcomed Mr. Fukuda to power by insisting once again that the House of Representatives should be dissolved and a general election held. Asked to comment on Mr. Fukuda, Mr. Ozawa said, “I have no comment on him as an individual. For the LDP-Komeito government, it will be the same whoever takes the place of prime minister. The continuation of LDP-Komeito government has meant the distortion of Japanese society, giving birth to injustice, inequality, and disparities in all areas.” Should Mr. Fukuda’s cabinet score highly in the polls that will be published any day now, however, the pressure on the DPJ to change its tune could become unbearable. The DPJ cannot rely on Mr. Fukuda to give them gifts in the manner that Mr. Abe’s cabinet did. They will have to work on outfoxing their new opponent, because I don’t think the rejectionist line will be sufficient in the face of a new prime minister who has acted quickly to neutralize (some but not all) potential enemies within the coalition and is now prepared to deal with the DPJ.

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