The LDP was blindsided. The public, it seems, is angry over Mr. Fukuda’s “irresponsibility.” The DPJ has already called for a general election.
I was not among those who wrote Mr. Fukuda off last year as a mere caretaker. I gave him credit for being a better politician than he appeared and not simply a reversion to the old LDP. I still think that. But I’m convinced that Mr. Fukuda was the right man at the wrong time.
His various public statements, including his first policy address, his speech to the LDP national convention in January, his second policy address, and his May foreign policy address all evince a clear understanding of the nature of Japan’s crisis. Mr. Fukuda clearly understands how Japan has to change; indeed, he may understand better than just about everyone in the LDP, Mr. Koizumi included. (I’m inclined to agree with Masuzoe Yoichi’s description of Mr. Koizumi as a better destroyer than builder — Japan at this point needs the latter just as much as it needs the former.) When he spoke of the hardships facing the Japanese people, I did not question his sincerity.
The problem is that he faced a political situation that would have stumped all but the ablest of politicians, which Mr. Fukuda is not. I think that he would have been a huge success had he followed Mr. Koizumi in 2006, being more of a builder than Mr. Koizumi and probably being better liked by the public than Mr. Koizumi. I don’t mean loved or admired in the way that Mr. Koizumi was, like a rock idol, but rather someone who the public would have trusted to listen to them, to be frank with them, and to do his best to address his concerns and begin the hard work of building a new Japanese system for the twenty-first century. Even Mr. Koizumi, for all his popularity, did not enjoy a relationship like that with the public — as suggested by scornful remarks about his policy legacy.
But Mr. Fukuda took over in September 2007, after Abe Shinzo had already reduced his inheritance to rubble. The agenda facing Mr. Fukuda was more daunting than the previous year, and he faced more obstacles to governing than Mr. Abe had. Mr. Fukuda had to deal with a resurgent DPJ in control of the upper house, but he also had to command an LDP deeply divided over its future in the wake of Mr. Koizumi and the LDP’s 2007 election defeat (the former being in some way a cause of the latter) and soothe an agitated Komeito. He failed to overcome all of these challenges. He may well have made them worse: the DPJ looks poised to win the next election, the LDP is no less divided than last year, and Komeito may be on the brink of breaking with the LDP. Press reports will focus on the role of the divided Diet (i.e.,, democracy) in undermining his government, but the LDP deserves at least as much blame. Throughout his tenure Mr. Fukuda had to battle with his own party about priorities, policy, and political strategy. His victories were scarce, and, as he made clear in his statement last night, his frustrations many.
Yes, Mr. Fukuda failed, but success is likely to have eluded most other politicians. The reality is that the LDP as it exists today is incapable of governing Japan.
Mr. Fukuda’s resignation may not just be the trigger for a general election; it may be the catalyst for a political realignment. Sonoda Hiroyuki yesterday called for the creation of a new party with part of the DPJ (presumably that also means part of the LDP will be involved too). The manner in which the LDP elects Mr. Fukuda’s successor will be crucial for determining whether and how the party survives. I have written that Mr. Aso is likely to be the successor, but that is by no means guaranteed. There is talk of a Koizumi return, although I suspect that at this point Mr. Koizumi would rather return at the head of his own party instead of resurrecting the corpse of the LDP. For the moment there is no apparent rival to Mr. Aso (the foreign press is talking of Koike Yuriko, but I don’t think she’ll be able to repeat Mr. Koizumi’s 2001 feat). But should Mr. Aso somehow not win the prize, I don’t think Mr. Aso and his conservative comrades will be long for the LDP. Similarly, Mr. Aso’s election could alienate some LDP members — like Mr. Nakagawa and the other remaining Koizumians — to the point of forcing them to leave the LDP and form their own party.
This is the shipwreck that Mr. Fukuda has left behind, though little fault of his own. The LDP is deeply divided along lines of how Japan should be governed, and the differing schools of thought seem disinclined to put the good of the LDP before their individual agendas.
The result may be that we are nearing the end of Japan’s long bakumatsu. After years of watching the old system decay — and be prematurely declared dead — the ancien regime may finally be dead.
Before the year is up the DPJ may get its first chance to form a government. The voters seem to be in a hanging mood, especially after a second consecutive LDP prime minister resigned surprisingly. This act will by no means transform Japan overnight — nothing will do that — but it will be the catharsis that signals the final break with LDP rule. Even if the LDP returns to power in the future, it will invariably be a different LDP, one humbled by its time in opposition and splintered.
For that, Mr. Fukuda should at least deserve a footnote when the history of the present era is written. He may not have delivered much — although it’s possible that the Fukuda Doctrine in foreign policy may outlast his government — but he at least pointed the way that Japan must go if it is to succeed in the twenty-first century. That’s certainly more than one could say of his predecessor.