Mid-January reshuffle of Cabinet eyed

Fukuda may shed Abe's holdovers, rules out poll

by Kaho Shimizu

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda hinted Saturday that he may reshuffle the Cabinet in mid-January in an effort to shore up his administration’s falling approval ratings.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Jinan, Shandong Province, Fukuda also ruled out the possibility of dissolving the House of Representatives before summer, citing the Group of Eight summit in July and other political events.

Calls are reportedly mounting within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for half of the ministers to be replaced because of his Cabinet’s dwindling popularity due primarily to its inability to deal with millions of missing pension records and because of the Defense Ministry corruption scandal. Asked if he is considering a Cabinet reshuffle, Fukuda said, “I understand that there are various opinions within the LDP, which I agree with.

“I would like to think about it after New Year’s, considering next year’s political schedule,” he said.

When Fukuda took office in September with the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, 13 of Abe’s 17 ministers retained their position because of his surprise departure less than one month after he reshuffled his Cabinet. Fukuda at the time focused on policy continuity amid the ongoing Diet session.

Although Fukuda’s Cabinet initially had a high support rate of 57.8 percent, that rate had plunged to 35.3 percent in mid-December, according to a Kyodo News survey. The fall was blamed on the continuing Defense Ministry corruption scandal and the pension record-keeping debacle.

The possible Cabinet reshuffle is also aimed at establishing Fukuda’s political identity distinct from Abe’s administration.

Asked if he might dissolve the Lower House, Fukuda said: “It is impossible to do so in the first half of next year.

“I don’t think we have time for that. There are many policy tasks that we have to deal with,” he added, citing the need to pass the fiscal 2008 budget, to reform the nation’s pension system and Japan’s hosting of the G8 summit in early July.

The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc is finding it hard to get the antiterrorism bill passed in the Diet, where the opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, controls the Upper House and is blocking the coalition’s attempt to pass the legislation so that the Maritime Self-Defense Force refueling mission in the Indian Ocean can be resumed.

Fukuda said he wants to gain consent from the opposition parties not only for the antiterrorism bill but also for other policy issues, including passage of the budget.

“We will continue discussions (with the DPJ.) I want the DPJ to think about why we have convened the Diet session in the first place.”