LDP appointments illustrate Fukuda’s isolation

by Reiji Yoshida

The appointments of four executives of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party highlight a weakness of Yasuo Fukuda — the lack of close allies within his own party.

None of the key LDP executives installed on Monday are close to incoming Prime Minister Fukuda, and political observers predict it will be difficult for him to manage his own party.

This is in stark contrast to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who appointed a number of his longtime friends to key party and Cabinet posts.

“They’re surprisingly faction-oriented personnel appointments,” said Yukio Hatoyama of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

The appointment of veteran lawmaker Bunmei Ibuki as LDP secretary general, the party’s No. 2 man after Fukuda, has particularly surprised reporters and LDP lawmakers.

Ibuki, a former elite Finance Ministry official, is known for his expertise in financial policy affairs. But at the same time he wields little political clout with his LDP colleagues.

Ibuki even failed to unite members of his own small faction to back Fukuda in the LDP presidential election. Five of the 25 members, including former LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa, openly defied Ibuki’s decision to support Fukuda, registering themselves as official supporters of Taro Aso, Fukuda’s rival in the two-way race on Sunday.

Others from Ibuki’s faction are believed to have voted for Aso.

Notwithstanding his stint as chief Cabinet secretary from 2000 to 2004, Fukuda has spent his career in the shadows, with few followers in the LDP, not to mention Seiwa-kai, the largest LDP faction, to which he belongs.

“I have often asked Mr. Fukuda to take up various party positions, but he won’t do very much of the party’s work,” Nobutaka Machimura, the head of Seiwa-kai, pronounced last year in a speech. Fukuda is only willing to take positions related to diplomatic affairs, and “he has few contacts with people in other areas,” Machimura said.

Fukuda indeed differs from average, practical LDP politicians who are eager to build networks in the closed world of politics to survive elections and internal power games.

Fukuda, the eldest son of the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, worked for years at a petroleum company before running for the Lower House at age 53 in 1990. He has prospered ever since thanks to his father’s renown and election organizations.

Among his hobbies, Fukuda enjoys drinking fine wine and listening to classical music. Unlike many other politicians, he doesn’t often attend nighttime meetings with his supporters or other LDP lawmakers.

His main interest has been diplomatic affairs, an area that draws little attention among political donors. In short, until becoming chief Cabinet secretary in 2000, Fukuda spent most of his political career avoiding hobnobbing with party members.

Political insiders say Fukuda’s only notable aide is Seishiro Eto, a former Defense Agency chief and a Lower House member from Oita Prefecture.

“A leader who is really strong doesn’t need to hang out with others,” Eto told The Japan Times when asked about Fukuda on Tuesday.

Indeed, leaders of eight of the nine LDP factions have rushed to support Fukuda as Abe’s successor.

Many LDP members remember Fukuda as a competent chief Cabinet secretary who kept a tight rein on bureaucrats during the Junichiro Koizumi administration. That is widely seen as one of the main reasons LDP members voted for Fukuda to replace Abe as LDP president.

However, it isn’t clear that a talent for shepherding government bureaucrats will carry over into his new job.

“Both the Cabinet and party to be led by Fukuda will be patchworks of various LDP members, whose (political) backgrounds range from the right to the left,” said political commentator Takao Toshikawa, editor of the newsletter Tokyo Insideline. “If he fails to balance the interests of those members, he might run into trouble.”