After eleven months as prime minister of Japan, Yasuo Fukuda resigned on September 2nd. With the 72-year-old Fukuda becoming the third prime minister to hold the job in as many years (not to mention the second to commit political suicide in a year), the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will select a new leader on September 22nd. Signs are strong that it will be Taro Aso, another older (67) politician who was foreign minister and is now LDP secretary-general (party chairman) and that he will automatically become prime minister.
Although he has four rivals, surveys show that Aso so far has the backing of about 42% of the LDP’s members of the Lower House of the Diet (parliament) and 21 of the 43 regional organizations of his party. Like his last two predecessors, he has dynastic political ties (his grandfather Shigeru Yoshida was a well-liked post-war prime minister) and Aso himself is now making his fourth try for the party leadership. (Republican readers in the U.S. will get the picture: it’s Aso’s turn). A onetime Olympic shooting competitor and comic book aficionado, Aso is considered more charismatic than Fukuda and shares the nationalist tendencies of recent predecessor Shinzo Abe. One wag noted that where flamboyant Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi upset China and both Koreas with regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (which honors the World War II dead, including war criminals such as executed Premier Tojo), Abe “kept a locker there.” Aso is not expected to make the controversial pilgrimages.
Big deal, you say? Who cares about a party that has held power for all but eleven months since 1955 and puts up leaders who seem to look, sound, and dress the same — and, of late, don’t have much shelf-life in power? And how does all this affect the United States, anyway?
As complex as it is, Japanese politics is important to watch. As the second-largest economy in the world and a reliable ally of the U.S. in the Pacific, Japan’s politics with all of its intrigue and back-room deals will have an impact in the long run on U.S. politics. If Japan suddenly gives the impression it is unstable or politically dysfunctional, this will immediately start discussion and fresh analysis in China as well as in North Korea. And, given the dealings and worries the U.S. has with those two Communist countries, a weakening of our most important ally in their neighborhood is very bad news for the U.S.
Two cases in point of Japan are the refueling of Afghanistan-bound U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean and the proposed missile defense system that the country’s defense industry wants and which the U.S. is hoping for in the long run. With the House of Councilors (the upper House of the Japanese parliament) controlled by the opposition Democratic Party and its wily leader Ichiro “The Destroyer” Ozawa, reauthorization of the Japanese “floating gas station” that the U.S. so counts on in the war on terror has been thwarted. Missile defense is on the back-burner and the burner could well be turned off if this political stalemate continues.
And that’s the bottom line in the Japanese political situation today: stalemate. Whoever becomes prime minister on September 22nd will almost inarguably be weaker than Fukuda or his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Refueling and missile defense will go nowhere and neither will Japan’s equivalent of a continuing resolution to fund the government when it comes up for a vote in the lower house of the Diet (parliament) in October.
Ozawa and the Democratic Party clearly want an election sooner rather than later and will do their utmost to bring it about. If that means thwarting a key element in Japan’s international relations or even shutting down the government, so be it. Ozawa’s desires are fueled by the New Komeito (Clean Government) Party, the junior partner in LDP’s ruling coalition, which also wants early elections. They are also fueled by much of the Japanese business community, as a just-completed Nikki poll showed that 30% of business executives want early elections as an avenue of ending the present political gridlock in Tokyo.
Look for the Diet to be dissolved in October for any number of reasons and elections to be held sometime in November, perhaps two weeks after the U.S. presidential elections. With several polls showing the LDP and the Democratic Party in a statistical tie nationwide, the results make Japan-watchers in Washington nervous. Were the erractic Mr. Ozawa to somehow cobble together a coalition that makes him prime minister, the incoming Obama or McCain Administrations would be most upset. Whether the issue is rearmament of Japan or economic reform, Ozawa’s politics vary from year to year and his premier vision appears to be the destruction of the ruling LDP Party (hence the nickname “the Destroyer”). In one of his rare interviews (with the Financial Times), “the Destroyer” predicted that if the LDP was ever driven from power, it would break up and atrophy in the manner of the Russian Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Were the LDP to hold onto power in the next election, it would almost surely do so with less than the two-thirds “supermajority” it now holds in the 480-seat lower House (which elects the prime minister). That would mean that Aso, who must wrestle with a $4.7 trillion dollar economy headed for recession and a budget defict estimated at 0.7% of the nominal Gross Domestic Product in 2011, will run into the same political roadkill that brought down Aso and now Fukuda. And that means another election and another prime minister.
Whoever becomes President of the U.S. in November, Communist China’s continuing clout in the Far East and North Korea’s uncertain political situation makes it imperative that Japan and its politics be something he pays close attention to.
JAPAN’s SARAH PALIN IN THE WINGS?
Where most of the smart money in Japan is on Taro Aso making it to the LDP leadership (and with it, the premiership) on his fourth try, one of the intriguing sides to the current race to succeed Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is that there is a four-person contest for the party post-premiership. And that’s unusual, if not unprecedented, in a country whose longtime ruling party have leadership races that are almost always wired, packed, rigged, and stacked.
The most dynamic feature of what the New York Times’ Martin Fackler dubbed “a starling departure from Japan’s scripted political succession” is the presence of the first-ever woman candidate for the premiership. In a highly patriarchal society, the bid by Yuriko Koike — a former TV anchorwoman and minister of defense — for the LDP helm is generating international attention. Will she make history by winning the leadership and going on to lead the LDP to a smashing comeback in the anticipated elections?
Probably not. This is Aso’s turn. And the 56-year-old Koike herself likened her efforts to those of Hillary Clinton running for President. As she told TV Asahi, “Hillary used the term ‘glass ceiling.’ But in Japan, it’s usually an iron plate.”
Actually, Koike is less Hillary Clinton than Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Their common background in television broadcasting aside, both Koike and Palin are mavericks who took on the establishments of their respective parties. Both have been accused of seeking high office with slim resumes, Koike having served as environment minister and then less than two months as defense minister. Koike was a close ally of former Prime Minister (2000-06) Junichiro Koizumi, who captivated voters with his tousled hair and passion for Elvis and ousted several LDP party elders with his chosen candidates, whom he called “the assasssins.” Koizumi began pushing a free-market agenda that led to six years of continuous growth. Koizumi is thought to be backing Koike behind the scenes.
Koike’s stumbling blocks are her gender, her maverick status, and the fact she switched parties three times before finally joining the LDP only six years ago. (Remember all those stories about Sarah Palin fliriting with the Alaskan Independence Party, when it was in fact her husband who belonged to the separatist party in the early 1990’s). Her problems in a party in which members of its parliament and its regional chapters choose the leader rather than caucuses and primary are obvious: Koike is “not one of the boys,” and, according to the Times’ Fackler, “struggled to find the twenty party supporters required under the party’s nominating rules.”
It’s pretty safe to say that Yuriko Koike won’t make history on September 22nd. But,, at a time when uncertainty hangs like a dark cloud over Japan and its politics, it is not frivolous to say that the backroom politics of the LDP and “one party democracy” may well be in their twilight days. Or in store for changes. No, there won’t be a Sarah Palin in Japan’s future on the 22nd. But she may be there sooner than you think.