09/02/2008, 00.00
JAPAN
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Japan’s current political crisis likely to end in a government of transition

by Pino Cazzaniga
People in the street react negatively to PM Fukuda’s sudden resignation. Premier quit because of deadlock in parliament and a drop in popularity as New Komeito plays maverick role.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced his resignation at 7.30 pm, 1 September because critical bills were not going through parliament as a result of political deadlock. “We have to seek the realisation of policies under a new line-up.” For this reason, “I have decided to step down so as not to create a political vacuum,” Fukuda said.

Everyone in Japan, political leaders, media and the population, were taken off guard by the announcement. But they all had seen the same thing on 27 September last year when Mr Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, quit as abruptly. But there the similarities stop. One, Abe, is young (53); the other, Fukuda, is relatively old (72); the former is affiliated with a younger cohort within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); the latter is a member of the party’s old generation of moderates; Abe quit alleging health problems, Fukuda resigned because he could not govern.

In both cases people in the street reacted negatively, treating the resignation as an irresponsible act. For some analysts Fukuda did not resign but gave up.

Some writers even regret Fukuda’s departure because of his moral integrity and the sincerity of his attempt to remedy problems inherited from the previous government. Although not sparing him a few critical notes of its own, Asahi expressed appreciation for him in its editorial page.

Mr Fukuda was sunk by three things: the Democratic Party’s hardnosed opposition; inconsistent support from the New Komeito Party (NKP), LDP’s coalition partner; and a major drop in popularity (from 60 to 29 per cent).

The outgoing premier can hardly be blamed for the latter, a trend largely driven by the need to find solutions to urgent domestic problems like rising prices and pension reform.

Instead the political crisis is largely institutional since last year’s upper house election, when the ruling two-party coalition, then under Prime Minister Abe, lost its majority. Since then the Japanese Diet has been split: the House of Representatives (lower house) is controlled by the LDP and the House of Councillors (upper house) is controlled by the opposition.

With a hung parliament bills cannot easily get through; filibustering has become the norm as the opposition tries to bring down the government and cause early elections it expects to win. In this situation the New Komeito Party (NKP), a Buddhist-based party, is playing the maverick.

The LDP has ruled Japan with an absolute majority for about 40 years. In the early 1990s it began losing its absolute grip on power and was forced into a coalition with the NKP. For reasons of political opportunism the latter has started to withhold its support on some key legislation like the bill to send refuelling ships to the Indian Ocean to re-supply foreign naval vessels involved in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Under the circumstances, and probably under pressure from LDP insiders, Fukuda decided to quit.

On the short run things appear quite clear.  Fukuda, who is also LDP leader, has charged LDP Secretary General Taro Aso to start looking for a new party chairman who will automatically become prime minister.

Aso, 68, is an expert politician, and has already forwarded his own candidacy.

His election is apparently a foregone conclusion because of his great popularity. The whole thing should be wrapped up in three weeks.

The new cabinet however should be transitional. General elections for the lower house are set for September 2009 but many political analysts expect them in the late fall this year after parliament ends its special session and before it reconvenes next year.

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