The prime minister is reportedly pleased with his achievements during the current Diet session, having faced down the LDP’s road tribe — for now — and blunted the DPJ’s attacks by borrowing liberally from their agenda. He reportedly said to Mori Yoshiro, former prime minister, and Aoki Mikio, former president of the upper house, “Don’t worry. I won’t imitate Prime Minister Abe.”
It does seem that the prime minister is increasingly finding his voice and looking to carry his party into the next election. He is increasingly looking to take up the mantle of Koizumi Junichiro, however tentatively and with reservations. He told Columbia’s Gerald Curtis in a meeting, “In reform, the problem should not be assessed quantitatively. Qualitative value is important.” In short, the prime minister is looking to stake out a Fukuda agenda to distinguish himself both from his rivals in the LDP and Ozawa Ichiro, head of the DPJ. (Regarding the former, Akasaka suggests that the Mr. Fukuda’s foreign policy vision is in direct contrast with Aso Taro’s “arc of freedom and prosperity,” an assessment that I share — he is explicitly rejecting the foreign policy approach of his two most recent predecessors, especially regarding the US-Japan alliance.)
In continuing his “silent revolution,” the prime minister is now prepared to turn his attention to political reform. On Wednesday he attended a general meeting of the LDP’s headquarters for realizing party reform. Takebe Tsutomu, LDP secretary-general under Mr. Koizumi, heads up the group, which shares his mission of keeping the flame of the Koizumi revolution burning in the LDP. The LDP reports that the group will consider reforming the Diet, liberalizing restrictions on political activity and political funds, and strengthening the party. It is too early to say what will emerge from this process. Diet reform, for example, may specifically refer to reform of the procedure for approving officials like the Bank of Japan’s executives (according to Mainichi), which is less inspiring than these ideas for Diet reform. Lifting the restrictions on political activity, meanwhile, is badly needed. Many of those restrictions, however, have served to protect incumbents, which will undoubtedly make said reform popular in the LDP. So whether Mr. Takebe’s group will produce anything of lasting value remains to be seen.
But what’s important to note is that Mr. Fukuda is looking both at what made Mr. Koizumi successful and what arguments the DPJ will muster in its next general election campaign. Mr. Koizumi succeeded in part because of his promise to destroy the LDP; the DPJ, especially under Mr. Ozawa, is running on the same platform. Making political reform a priority will bolster Mr. Fukuda’s reformist credentials at the same time that he weakens the DPJ’s best argument for regime change.
Pushing for political reform will not spare the LDP from a devastating blow in the next general election — but it and every other effort by the prime minister to borrow from the DPJ to undermine the LDP’s reactionaries could mean the difference between a total defeat of the LDP and a lesser defeat that leaves the LDP with a parliamentary majority.
An ebullient Mr. Fukuda looking to burnish his reformist credentials puts the DPJ on the defensive, despite the DPJ’s censure motion. The tide may turn against Mr. Fukuda eventually — he will not be able to antagonize the reactionaries forever and escape unharmed, because he doesn’t have Mr. Koizumi’s theatrical (or perhaps prestidigitatorial) skills and public support. But for now he will escape the Diet session intact and play host in Hokkaido before having to rejoin the battle against enemies inside and outside the LDP.