RUSI Analysis, 3rd September 2008
With the sudden resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, all eyes are now on Taro Aso for the premiership. He is noted as a hawk, keen on developing Japan’s foreign and security policy.
The sudden resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has come as a big shock to the Japanese public. Stepping out of a meeting with his foreign secretary and Chief Cabinet Secretary at around 7pm from the Prime Minister’s office, Fukuda gave little advanced warning of his intentions to either the press or the public. Interesingly, he gave little advanced notice to his own party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is in itself revealing. LDP lawmakers were said to be scrambling today to begin the party election process by which a new leader can be chosen. Fukuda’s resignation raises two major questions: why the sudden resignation and what now lies ahead for Japanese politics?
For a man who was privately comptemptous of Shinzo Abe’s sudden resignation a little over a year ago, Fukuda’s own departure is extremely uncharacteristic. Though he was a strong Chief Cabinet Secretary in Junichiro Koizumi’s cabinet, Fukuda has not had a strong political career since. His elevation to the premiership was the unlikely result of party political shenanigans – he became the favoured choice of a powerful LDP faction.
Fukuda’s eleven month-long premiership was a series of mishaps, marked by a long terminal decline in the public opinion polls. The hold over the Upper House by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) meant that Fukuda’s administration was frustrated in even the most minor legislative initiatives, and the public responded by putting their support increasingly behind the opposition. LDP coalition allies like the New Komeito party may have given Fukuda the final kiss of death when they told him to make his chief rival Taro Aso LDP Secretary General, or else they would leave the government coalition. This was a major signal to those within the LDP that Fukuda was no longer able to maintain his own house.
Political pundits now wonder if Taro Aso, considered once before for the premiership, will now step up to assume a mantle that he thinks is rightfully his. Indeed, there were even those who whispered in August of last year that Aso was secretly relieved to be passed over for the premiership given the unfavourable political situation in the Diet at that time. Fukuda, it was thought, would weather the worst storms, with Aso coming to the rescue of the LDP only after his predecessor had seen off the worst of the political weather. If there is any truth to this, it reveals Aso’s character, patience and political acumen.
What of Japan’s security policy under Aso? Policy-makers within the Japanese Ministry of Defence are already predicting a return to the policies of Abe if Aso becomes Prime Minister. Aso, a known hawk, is likely to continue the policy of making Japan a normal country, with a strong security and foreign policy, able to send troops abroad and able to help allies like the United States in the struggle against global terrorism. A general peacekeeping operations (PKO) bill has been stuck on the shelf for the last eleven months as Fukuda turned his attention to improving relations with China and to turning Japan into a progressive power on climate change. If Aso does win the LDP election, which is due by 20 September, then it is likely this bill will come off the shelf. Furthermore, security experts within Tokyo predict that if Aso does win the leadership struggle, he will take firmer steps to renew the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law, which expires in November. Despite his resolve, he may find this difficult to do since the DPJ will continue to block any renewal from the Upper House.
But this is all a battle yet to happen for a man whose right to rule is still under serious question. He will not be the only candidate running in the LDP leadership contest. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is said to be quietly backing the redoubtable Yuriko Koike, one of Japan’s most prominent female politicians. Koike, a former defence minister, also has the support of Hidenao Nakagawa, sometimes called a kingmaker within LDP circles. She has both the will and the support to put up a serious challenge to Aso and much will depend on where former prime minister Mori, an LDP heavy-weight and leader of a large faction within the party, decides to put his vote. Either way, whoever wins the LDP election will find a nation which is increasingly tired of party politics and an electorate perhaps ready to hand power over to the opposition.
Becoming prime minister may not be such a good idea after all.