Fukuda the survivor

With the regular Diet session entering its final week (or penultimate week), it’s possible that Prime Minister Fukuda may emerge from the session stronger than seemed possible.

His bolstered stature has less to do with personal victories — the pork-and-patronage members of the LDP are no less angry with his leadership than before, and he still faces bruising fights over fiscal policy and road construction in the autumn — but he has succeeded at co-opting ideas from the DPJ, stopping the DPJ in its tracks.

As MTC notes in a superb post, the DPJ has benefited mightily from an incompetent LDP that has spent the months since Koizumi Junichiro’s departure distancing itself from his legacy and abandoning his tactic of borrowing policy ideas from the DPJ to bludgeon opponents within the party (and secure greater popular support). MTC sees a possible revival of Koizumism in the LDP, the longer that Mr. Fukuda holds on.

It seems that MTC shares Nakagawa Hidenao’s assessment of the prime minister as a “silent reformer.” However, I wonder whether MTC might be a bit too optimistic about the balance of forces in the LDP. Mr. Fukuda might be declaring “Mission Accomplished” today, but there may yet be an insurgency lying in wait when he tries to get his road construction reform bill — perhaps his signature victory this session — passed into law.

But his assessment of the DPJ under Ozawa is spot on. The DPJ is in the unfortunate position of needing victories, however small, to keep its ragtag ranks together. As long as things are looking up, as long as the polls continue to report good news, as long as the LDP is airing its dirty laundry for all to see, the DPJ is in good spirits and news reports of DPJ fissures vanish. Stall, and those reports reappear. It’s little wonder that Mr. Ozawa’s DPJ is all tactics, no strategy. In the grand scheme of things, the DPJ has performed ably since taking control of the HC. It has controlled the agenda and pushed issues that exploit divisions within the LDP. It has forced the government to speak on terms favorable to the DPJ: “lifestyle” issues, so to speak.

But it is no surprise that Mr. Fukuda will willfully shift in the DPJ’s direction. It’s been clear from before the launch of Mr. Fukuda’s cabinet: in picking up the pieces from the Abe debacle, Mr. Fukuda would necessarily have to sound similar notes to the DPJ’s campaign slogan of putting lifestyle issues first. This would be worrying for the DPJ if Mr. Fukuda was Mr. Koizumi. But he’s not. Whereas Mr. Koizumi relished borrowing from the DPJ to pummel his own party and then taking his case to the public to win support for his initiative, Mr. Fukuda is far less inclined to pummel his own party and far less able to reach out to the public. He’s left trying to keep everyone happy, now leaning to Nakagawa Hidenao and the Koizumi remnant, now backpedaling on reform, now preaching the gospel of cooperation across the aisle, now throwing a tantrum when frustrated by DPJ intransigence. Through all this maneuvering, Mr. Fukuda may have prolonged the life of his government. But how long can he keep up this balancing act? Will he throw in his hat with a single LDP school (i.e., the Koizumians)? If he does so, will he be completely abandoned?

This is the essential question in the prospective cabinet reshuffle. If Mr. Fukuda opts for a new cabinet, will it once again be a unity cabinet? If so, why bother? If not, will he use a reshuffle to throw his weight behind one group? (Another question is whether he would use the reshuffle to bring Aso Taro and/or Yosano Kaoru, the leading post-Fukuda contenders, into the cabinet and prevent them from campaigning.) This question is speculative for now; Mori Yoshiro, Mr. Fukuda’s “guardian,” claims that the prime minister is leaning against a reshuffle.

In short, Mr. Fukuda is not in the clear yet. He is still constrained by his divided party, and it remains questionable whether he has the power to impose his will on the party. But he is a canny politician, and he is making the best of a terrible hand. The calendar may be his greatest ally. The longer he holds out, the more he can kill speculation about the post-Fukuda era and force members of the LDP to accept that he may be around for the long haul, the long haul being September 2009, the deadline for a general election — and by accepting Mr. Fukuda’s durability, embracing (however reluctantly) his strategy for preserving an LDP majority.

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