Will Fukuda last?

Many analysts of Japanese politics assumed at the inception of the Fukuda cabinet that his was little more than a caretaker government.

Now more than 100 days into the Fukuda administration, it remains difficult to say whether that assessment will turn out to be accurate. If the caretaker’s job is to stabilize the ruling party and ensure that his successor’s government will have surer footing, then Mr. Fukuda is an abject failure as a caretaker.

That would explain the intra-party maneuvering described in a long, rambling article by Akasaka Taro in the April issue of Bungei Shunjyu, posted in two parts at Yahoo! Minna no seiji.

The first part describes Mr. Fukuda’s efforts to bolster his government’s ability to lead on social security and taxation — Akasaka opens with the example of the recent appointment of Ito Tatsuya, a lieutenant of Nakagawa Hidenao as the prime minister’s adviser on the social security issue in defiance of the health and welfare “tribe” to show the treacherous waters in which Mr. Fukuda is navigating.

The Fukuda government, Akasaka suggests, has been paralyzed in terms of its policy leadership, for reasons having more to do with Mr. Fukuda’s struggle to impose some discipline on party and bureaucracy than with the divided Diet. At the same time, however, he may be laying the groundwork for a Fukuda-“colored” policy agenda that will enable him to serve as something more than a caretaker:

“The Social Security People’s Conference.” “The Conference for The Promotion of Consumer Administration.” “The Global Warming Problem Consultative Group.” These are all Fukuda ideas. In these three big policy areas a Fukuda color is becoming clear, sweeping away the “no policy” criticism and marking the start of the search for Kantei-led policymaking.

On this basis, Mr. Fukuda will attempt to prolong his government and delay a general election.

The second half of the article, however, suggests that reformist opponents of Mr. Fukuda may already be laying the groundwork for a new cabinet.

Akasaka points in particular to the activities of Sonoda Hiroyuki, a seven-term HR member who left the LDP in 1993 to join Sakigake before returning to the LDP in late 1999. He suggests that Mr. Sonoda is plotting with certain DPJ members to create an emergency government under the leadership of Yosano Kaoru. Supposedly Mr. Sonoda is working, through Sentaku, with anti-Ozawa members of the DPJ to undercut both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ozawa and vault a reformist government to power that will deal with Japan’s most urgent problems. Mr. Yosano would be the man for the job apparently on the basis of his having been acknowledged as Mr. Koizumi’s truest heir by longtime Koizumi aide Iijima Isao.

Whether there is something to this Sonoda “conspiracy” is besides the point. What’s important is what this means for dynamics within the LDP: Akasaka acknowledges that the next LDP leadership struggle will likely be between Aso Taro and his conservative allies led by Nakagawa Shoichi, and the group of reformers around Yosano and centered in the reborn Kochikai, with outside help from Komeito and the DPJ. The decisive factor will be the backing of the Machimura faction.

For the moment, Mr. Fukuda — who vaulted to the premiership thanks to the backing of the Machimura faction, or rather Mori Yoshiro, its capo — enjoys the support of the LDP’s largest faction. There is the possibility, however, that Mr. Mori and his lieutenants, the most vocal advocates of postponing a general election until September 2009, will begin looking for a more popular alternative to Mr. Fukuda later this year in the hope of repairing the LDP’s prospects in the year leading up to a general election. It is possible that pressure for Mr. Fukuda to step aside in the aftermath of the G8 summit could come from his own “backers.”

As for the prospects of the “Yosano emergency government,” I think any plan that rests on the support of the DPJ’s anti-Ozawa group is an unreliable one, not least because for the moment I think they would prefer to focus their efforts on unseating Mr. Ozawa from within the party — in September’s party election for example — than in pressuring the DPJ from outside. That could change if and when someone triggers a realignment, as the Yosano camp could be the germ of a Koizumian new party, but for the moment this is just another example of the fevered speculation prompted by the uncertain political situation.

Finally, as for Mr. Fukuda, he remains, for now, the head of a woefully divided party that could splinter at any moment. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

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