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Picking faction bosses Abe’s bid to show tactful maturity?

by Hiroko Nakata and Masami Ito

In a desperate effort to mend his and his Cabinet’s damaged credibility, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the safe course Monday by picking a new team of mainly veteran lawmakers, including Liberal Democratic Party faction leaders.

The new lineup marks a clear shift from the “Cabinet of pals” who got portfolios when Abe took office last year, analysts said.

Many members of the first Abe Cabinet were younger-generation LDP lawmakers who shared his right-leaning ideas or played key roles in his election as party president last September.

Over the past 11 months, Abe’s first Cabinet saw its public support rate plunge and four ministers replaced, after they became either embroiled in scandal or made inflammatory gaffes.

However, the analysts said it is not clear that the new lineup will lead to a reversal of fortunes, which plunged to an all-time low when the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc lost its Upper House majority to the opposition in last month’s election.

“There are no big surprises. So I doubt there will be a sharp recovery in the support ratings,” said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor in Keio University’s graduate school of media and governance.

Unless Abe and his ministers produce tangible achievements, the reshuffle will fail to impress, Sone said.

Acknowledging the difficulty in regaining credibility with the public, new Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano told reporters, “There is no magic to suddenly revive the support ratings.”

That support will only come if the Cabinet makes solid efforts to fulfill its duty in an open manner, Yosano said.

Political commentator Eiken Itagaki said Abe “assumed the defensive” by naming senior LDP lawmakers to his new Cabinet.

“Abe picked veterans who will not make careless remarks,” Itagaki said. “I think (Abe’s) mind was set on how to dodge the offensive from the Democratic Party of Japan.”

DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama pointed out that LDP faction leaders are key figures in the new Cabinet, including Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, education minister Bunmei Ibuki and Defense Minister Masahiko Komura.

“Can (the new LDP executives and Cabinet) really create new politics? Abe vowed to change his staff completely, but I don’t think the public necessarily views it this way,” Hatoyama said.

Experts noted the shakeup will have certain positive effects. Iwao Osaka, a research associate at the University of Tokyo who specializes in media and politics, said the new lineup should ease public concerns over further scandals and gaffes, such as those that haunted the previous, politically inexperienced Cabinet.

But Osaka added that Abe’s appointment of veteran lawmakers could backfire.

“I wonder how well a young leader can withstand a bunch of seniors,” he said, questioning whether Abe will be able to control his Cabinet if the party elders start to clash.

LDP member Yoichi Masuzoe, an outspoken critic of Abe who had served as chief policymaker in the party’s Upper House caucus, is the new health minister, who will be responsible for rectifying the public pension record-keeping debacle.

The fiasco was a major drag on Abe’s public support in the runup to the LDP’s stunning defeat in the July 29 election.

Abe picked former Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda to be internal affairs and communications minister, with the added task of resolving the widening economic gap between urban and rural Japan — another major reason voters revolted against the LDP in its former rural strongholds.

The pension debacle is meanwhile more serious than it seems, Keio University’s Sone said, noting: “The pension issue originates from a systematic problem. Just changing ministers won’t solve the problem.”