Key challenge: Keeping New Komeito on board

by Masami Ito

Although Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda finally managed to name his own Cabinet on Friday, the lineup appears subdued and reserved, just like him, critics say.

Fukuda needs a big boost in popularity before the next general election, which must be held, at the latest, before September 2009, when the terms of the current Lower House members expire.

But analysts are doubtful the new lineup can do much to right Fukuda’s listing ship.

Four ministers were retained from the Cabinet he inherited, and three of his top Liberal Democratic Party executives were merely shifted to ministerial posts.

“I bet some of the young LDP hopefuls are going to express dissatisfaction,” said Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture. “I just can’t see what policies Fukuda wants to take on with this lineup.”

Most of the previous Cabinet ministers were handpicked by Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who abruptly quit last September. Despite hopes that a fresh and original Cabinet would be selected following Abe’s meltdown, Fukuda continued to work with the nationalist’s revamped crew.

After wondering how many of the ministers were actually picked for their ability and how many were chosen to please the ruling party’s various factions, Narita said he came up with one figure: half.

“It just reflects the prime minister’s indecisive character,” he said.

For better or for worse, Fukuda and his new Cabinet are in for a rough ride. The extraordinary Diet session expected to be held is shaping up to be another battle between the LDP-New Komeito coalition and the Democratic Party of Japan, the leading opposition force and the top party in the Upper House.

With the opposition in control of the Upper House, the ruling bloc will continue its struggle to pass key bills.

Critics say the main issue in the extra Diet session will be whether to extend the bill that allows the Maritime Self Defense Force to refuel multinational naval ships in the Indian Ocean to support counterterrorism operations related to Afghanistan. The bill expires in January.

“I want the public to realize we cannot close our eyes and expect others to do Japan’s work when 90 percent of the oil is brought into Japan through the Indian Ocean,” newly appointed LDP Secretary General Taro Aso said Friday.

“Japan pulling out when the international society is joining hands is not necessarily something that can be accepted in the world,” he said.

A divided Diet forces the ruling bloc to vote twice in the Lower House to pass a bill opposed by the Upper House. Article 59 of the Constitution stipulates that even if the upper chamber votes down a bill, it can still be passed with a two-thirds majority vote in the lower chamber.

But Fukuda is concerned about more than the opposition. Retaining New Komeito as its coalition partner will be a key issue if the LDP continues to lose its edge in the Diet.

New Komeito, backed by Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, is a staunch advocate of peace. The party has been reluctant to help the LDP force the counterterrorism bill through the Diet and has been distancing itself from its partner. The DPJ and other opposition parties rejected the bill in the Upper House in January.

Since the ruling bloc’s crushing defeat in last July’s Upper House election, Soka Gakkai has reportedly been critical of LDP policies and New Komeito has become more vocal about its own agenda to avoid being dragged into another collapse in the next general election.

The term for House of Representatives lawmakers ends next September, but the prime minister has the power to dissolve the house and call a snap election at any time.

Given the Fukuda Cabinet’s low public standing, however, some critics say the LDP will attempt to postpone the election as much as possible.

But New Komeito wants the election to be held before year’s end because the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election — which serves as Soka Gakkai’s home ground and New Komeito’s political base — is coming up next summer.