The new Abe Cabinet: Round two
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 29, 2007
FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT AND MASTER POLITICAL MANIPULATOR Lyndon Baines Johnson once remarked about then-F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
That maxim came to mind when scanning the appointments of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his second Cabinet. Mr. Abe’s previous Cabinet was battered by financial scandals and repercussions from its misstatements, and his government was rocked by revelations of the Social Insurance Agency’s improper handling of pension records. He was walloped by critics on the left at home and abroad for implementing policies to move beyond the “postwar regime” and assert Japan’s presence internationally, to proceed with Constitutional reform, and to rework the educational system. Finally, he was jabbed by many in his own party for failing to take responsibility for the defeat of the Liberal Democrats in the July upper house elections by stepping down.
Rather than change course to assuage his critics, the embattled Mr. Abe seems to have chosen a different tack. He has forged a united front by bringing all the LDP pissers inside the tent and take on the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
These are some of his appointees:
Foreign Minister: Nobutaka Machimura
This is Mr. Machimura’s second term as foreign minister, and just as important, he is the head of the largest LDP faction (i.e., party-within-a-party)–and the faction that Mr. Abe was once a member of. He shares the prime minister’s goal of a more assertive Japan. He will lead the fight in the Diet to continue Japan’s mission of assisting the American effort in Afghanistan by refueling ships. The legislation expires this year, and the DPJ strongly opposes an extension.
Finance Minister: Fukushiro Nukaga
Mr. Nukaga considered running against Mr. Abe last year for the party presidency (and therefore prime minister), but decided against it. He is a member of the Tsushima faction, once headed by former prime ministers Hashimoto and Takeshita.
Defense Minister: Masahiko Komura
The new defense minister formerly held the post of foreign minister. His hardline approach to North Korea is compatible with that of the prime minister’s. He also heads his own party faction.
Education Minister: Bunmei Ibuki
Mr. Ibuki was retained from the first Abe cabinet. And yes, he is also a faction leader.
And, the most interesting of all:
Health Minister: Yoichi Masuzoe
Mr. Masuzoe (first photo) is a member of the upper house and is unaffiliated with any faction. The University of Tokyo political science professor won a reputation for outspokenness and candid criticism as a guest on television programs. He parlayed this into a Diet seat by a route often chosen by celebrities—winning election to the upper house instead of the politically more important lower house.
The media focus is on Mr. Masuzoe’s sharp criticism of both Mr. Abe and his Cabinet over the past year. He called for Fumio Kyuma (ill-advised statements) and Norihiko Akagi (political funds scandal) to resign from the previous Cabinet, which they eventually did. He took the prime minister to task for extending the previous Diet session past the June deadline, and for failing to resign after the upper house election defeat. Mr. Masuzoe also said Prime Minister Abe was beginning to resemble the main character in the fable of the emperor’s new clothes.
He will now be the man responsible for overseeing and explaining to the public the party’s efforts to clean up the pension system mess. This is a critical job because this issue has now become the third rail of Japanese politics.
What the media is overlooking is his former position as the deputy director of the Drafting Committee on the new Constitution. In that role, he was the point man in explaining to the pubic the LDP’s draft Constitution, including their proposed revision of Article 9, the so-called peace clause.
Therefore, rather than soft-pedaling his agenda in the wake of the election defeat, Prime Minister Abe has instead looked for ways to continue its implementation.
- He traveled to India to discuss with the Indians an alliance with Australia and the U.S., an idea he floated in his book two years ago. During the visit, he stopped off in Calcutta to meet Prasanta Pal, the son of Radhabinod Pal (second photo), the only member of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to vote for acquittal of the defendants. He was also the only member of the panel with a background in international law. (We might well count this as a surrogate Yasukuni visit.)
- He brought in for a second term as foreign minister the man who controls the largest bloc of LDP Diet members to prepare for a fight to keep Japan involved in military operations abroad.
- He chose as his new defense minister a man in synch with him on North Korean policy.
- He retained his education minister, almost certainly with the intention of continuing his educational reforms.
- And he brought one of his harshest critics in the party into the tent to deal with, and hopefully resolve, the explosive pension issue—a man who shares with the prime minister the goal of rewriting the Constitution.
In other words, it could get very wet and smelly indeed for the people standing outside the LDP tent.
The upcoming parliamentary maneuvering promises to be fascinating. Though the opposition controls the upper house, the LDP can still pass all of its legislation with a two-thirds vote in the lower house—and it has the numbers to do it. Thus, the flow of legislation could easily wind up looking like this: Passage by the lower house – Rejection by the upper house – Passage by a two-thirds majority in the lower house.
The trick for the LDP will be to make it appear as if they are sensitive to the wishes of the opposition and are not steamrolling them–while they are in the process of steamrolling them. Meanwhile, it will be up to the DPJ to advance a positive agenda in the upper house without seeming to be the usual gang of obstructionists–while trying to obstruct everything they do.
How this match will turn out is still anyone’s guess, but from here it looks as if the LDP has gotten up off the canvas and is back in its fighting stance.
UPDATE:The lead story in this morning’s Japan Times concerns the new Cabinet. The headline reads, “Abe taps faction veterans for Cabinet”. So far, so good. Above the headline, however, is the caption, “No Surprises”.
This is ridiculous even for the integrity-challenged Japan Times. Considering Mr. Masuzoe’s criticism of the prime minister and his relative lack of experience, his inclusion is most definitely a surprise. Also qualifying as a surprise is the selection of Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda as the internal affairs minister. Mr. Masuda’s reputation is that of a reformer.
It is a curious phenomenon. For decades, the media insisted it was unbiased. Now that no one believes them anymore–indeed, with employees of the BBC and American television networks even admitting it–one might have thought they’d clean up their act. Instead, being outed seems to have liberated them. They’ve gotten even worse, and among them, the Japan Times has become downright amateurish.
UPDATE #2: Last year, Prime Minister Abe used the phrase “A beautiful country” as the slogan for his administration. It was also the title of his 2005 bestseller. He stopped using it before the upper house election to prevent the opposition from using it as a weapon in the campaign. When speaking to the media yesterday, however, Mr. Abe intentionally used the phrase three times.
As I argued a couple of days ago, and the new Cabinet line-up seems to suggest, Mr. Abe might think that his core philosophy and policies are not to blame for the problems of his administration.
This is an additional hint that he will continue to pursue his agenda while trying to clean up the pension mess, this time without any blundering from the Cabinet.
A snap poll from Kyodo shows a Cabinet support rate of 40%, with a 45% disapproval rating. Still not ideal from the LDP perspective, but much better than it was last month.