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Japan PM's Fight for Life in '08
[Analysis] Yasuo Fukuda faces a possible crucial general election and other challenges
Hisane Masaki (hmasaki)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-23 04:08 (KST)   
This is the first part of a four-part article.  <Editor's Note>
As the Year of the Rat begins, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda continues to face the daunting challenge of pushing through his agenda in the new harsh political landscape. With a formidable opposition force, declining poll ratings and a possibly crucial general election in the new year, he is expected to keep struggling.

For those who want big changes in the nation, the past Year of the Boar may have been dull and disappointing. The structural reform drive ignited by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and basically inherited by Fukuda's immediate predecessor Shinzo Abe has lost momentum. For those who want the status quo or at least no hasty change, however, the old year may not have been so bad.

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In the wake of its historic electoral rout, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party elected Fukuda as its new leader in September in hopes that the veteran, less reform-minded moderate with a reputation as a consensus-oriented politician, would bring much-needed stability to the government and LDP-led ruling coalition.

While vowing to continue with the structural reform drive, Fukuda has repeatedly pledged to pay more attention to the issue of social inequalities such as between richer urban and poorer rural areas that were a factor in the LDP's electoral drubbing in July. Critics refer to the issue as the negative legacy of Koizumi's market-friendly reforms. On the day of his inauguration in late September, Fukuda himself called his team a "do-or-die" cabinet. He also said at the time that his cabinet has "its back against the wall." More specifically, "That is to say if [the cabinet] fails, the LDP will be ousted from power," he said.

In the new year, Fukuda is a toshi otoko -- literally "a man of the year" -- as those men born in a year with the same Oriental zodiac sign as the current year are commonly referred to in Japan. The 71-year-old Fukuda, the eldest son of former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, was born in July 1936, also the Year of the Rat.

At this time it is impossible to tell whether 2008 will be a lucky year for the prime minister. It would probably be safer to bet against it. When Fukuda was elected Japan's new leader, one senior opposition lawmaker likened him to Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last Tokugawa shogun before the 1868 Meiji Restoration ended the 265-year-old feudalistic shogunate and restored power to the emperor.

The biggest focus of attention in Japanese politics in the new year will be the general election for the House of Representatives that is due by September 2009 at the latest but is very likely to be called earlier, possibly some time next summer.

The election for the more powerful lower house of the Diet, Japan's bicameral parliament, will be a moment of truth for the political fortunes of not only Fukuda, but also his LDP-led ruling coalition. It could trigger a drastic alteration of the nation's political landscape through the formation of a "grand coalition" between the LDP and the biggest opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) or even through a major realignment of political parties.

The ruling LDP-New Komeito coalition lost control of the 242-seat House of Councilors -- the upper house of the Diet -- to the DPJ-led opposition in an election in July. To be sure, the ruling camp retains more than two-thirds of the 480 seats in the lower house, whose decisions constitutionally take precedence over those of the upper house regarding budgets, treaties and the election of a prime minister. But the LDP-New Komeito coalition has faced significant difficulties in pushing through its legislative agendas since its loss of a majority in the upper house.

This new reality in Japanese politics took its toll on Fukuda's predecessor Abe, who abruptly announced his resignation in September, citing the dire prospect of pushing through a controversial bill aimed at keeping Japanese naval ships deployed in the Indian Ocean on a refueling mission to support United States-led operations in and near Afghanistan. Abe was admitted to hospital with a serious stomach illness just a day later.

The six-year refueling mission was suspended, and Japanese ships were withdrawn on Nov. 1 after a special anti-terrorism law authorizing the deployment expired because the opposition-controlled upper house blocked its extension. Since stepping into Abe's position, Fukuda has been preoccupied with the task of winning the Diet's approval for resuming the refueling mission.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. This is the first part of an article that originally appeared on Asia Times on Dec.22.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hisane Masaki

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