Fukuda, the LDP, and Japan: all hamstrung

Fukuda Yasuo has returned from his vacation at the Prince Park Tower hotel near Shiba Park in Tokyo.

His agenda is no less crowded than it was last week.

In the final week of the month, Mr. Fukuda, his government, and his party will be considering the new budgetary guidelines, deliberating on when to start the autumn extraordinary session of the Diet, and considering whether to reshuffle his cabinet before the autumn session.

Mr. Fukuda has provided few hints as to his thinking on the latter, and day by day the pressure from his party — using the media to pour on the pressure — grows for the prime minister to decide on a reshuffle.

On the question of timing, there is no hint as to when the Diet will convene again, but obviously if the government waits too long, the extraordinary session could turn into another marathon session stretching into next year as the government is forced to use Article 59 to pass priority legislation (like another enabling law for the MSDF’s refuelling mission). Ibuki Bunmei, LDP secretary-general, said as much at a press conference Tuesday, and expressed his desire for the new session to begin by the end of August. Asked about it at his press conference later Tuesday, Machimura Nobutaka, chief cabinet secretary, said no agreement had been reached and provided no insight to the government’s thinking.

The timing of the new session is intertwined with the question of a reshuffle. The argument — at least as made by Asahi — is that a reshuffle now will strengthen the prime minister’s efforts to pass legislation on health care, social security, and eldercare, and countermeasures to address high energy costs. By giving the cabinet a “Fukuda color,” the government will apparently have an easier time moving its agenda.

I’m unimpressed by this logic. I don’t know what a Fukuda-colored cabinet would look like, but I’m not certain that it would be an improvement. And I don’t see how it would strengthen the government’s ability to move legislation. Instead I see it as freeing people who disagree with the prime minister to intensify their activities to undermine the prime minister. Meanwhile, is Masuzoe Yoichi, the minister for health, labor, and welfare (HLW) and the point man on the aforementioned issues (and a major critic of Abe Shinzo’s despite being a holdover from the second Abe cabinet, thereby exposing the folly in the logic that the second Abe cabinet inherited by Mr. Fukuda is out of place today) somehow an obstacle to the government’s plans?

The arguments being made on behalf of a reshuffle are flimsy, and yet the media is repeating them unquestioningly.

In the end, talk of a reshuffle is a distraction from the realities of policy: the Fukuda government and the LDP are unable to rescue Japan from its ongoing crisis. As Ken Worsley noted, the Cabinet Office admitted that the budget won’t be balanced by 2011 as desired by Koizumi Junichiro. The economic outlook is worsening. The latest HLW white paper on the Japanese labor market recorded the inexorable growth in the use of un-regular staff, indicating the crumbling of Japanese labor system.

In the midst of this, government and ruling party are dithering over whether a new cabinet will improve the prime minister’s public approval ratings.

The LDP’s empire is crumbling.

It is not yet known what will rise in its place — and if it’s a new DPJ regime, whether it will be more of the same — but we are without question witnessing the death throes of the ancien regime. Problems are mounting faster than the hamstrung government can tackle them. The LDP has, according to Yamasaki Taku, abandoned Koizumism, but it has adopted nothing in its place, not even the old way of conducting politics. It is merely treading water, and poorly.

How will a prime minister who can’t decide whether to change his cabinet push through sweeping changes to how Japan cares for its sick and aged, provides opportunities for young workers, and enables firms to innovate and grow?

The DPJ may find itself similarly hamstrung, but the DPJ’s qualities should not (and are not, I would argue) the most important matter facing the Japanese people. The question is whether the party that failed to anticipate and act responsibly in the face of a gathering crisis should be trusted with the power to attempt to fix the mess it created.

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