Fukuda exit underscores New Komeito rift, may spur poll

by Masami Ito

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s sudden resignation Monday may set in motion a round of political upheaval, with his successor likely to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election before year’s end, critics say.

The term of the House of Representatives lasts until next September, but even before Fukuda became the nation’s leader, speculation has been unending about when the chamber might be dissolved and an election called.

Critics speculate that the Liberal Democratic Party will try and hold the election as soon as possible while its new leader is still fresh and popular with the public. But Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan, said a new face will not change the severe situation the LDP is facing.

“Even if the LDP changes its leader, the fact that the LDP president and prime minister of the country abandoned his post remains the same,” Shiratori said. “I think the LDP has reached its limit.”

The sense of deja vu spread throughout the political battleground of Tokyo’s Nagata-cho district when Fukuda hastily called a news conference Monday night. The same thing happened about a year ago with his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who also abruptly quit.

“It is abnormal that a prime minister quits out of the blue twice in a row,” Shiratori said. “I must say it is politically irresponsible to quit like that.”

Although Fukuda stressed Monday night that having a new leader would be better, Shiratori said the way he quit has let down the people and will cool the public to the LDP.

At the same time, the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, has been pressuring the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc to hold a general election.

The DPJ won a historical victory in last July’s Upper House election in which it became the No. 1 party in the chamber. It’s next goal is to win in the Lower House election and seize power from the LDP-led bloc.

Although it is still hard to predict which party will win the next general election, critics agree that the ruling bloc will definitely lose its comfortable majority in the Lower House. Currently, the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition holds a two thirds majority in the lower chamber — a number necessary to pass bills through a divided Diet.

The loss of that majority “would deepen the split between the LDP and New Komeito,” Shiratori said. “New Komeito doesn’t want to pair with the No. 2 party.”

Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University, said the outcome of the Lower House election may not be as significant as the DPJ hopes for.

Even if the DPJ collects enough votes to become the No. 1 party, that does not necessarily mean it will have a majority in the house on its own — and it would then have to join hands with another party.

One option would be to team with the Social Democratic Party, but some DPJ lawmakers are rightwing, making that an unlikely proposition.

“That is when the ‘grand coalition’ idea will surface again,” he said. “In terms of policy, the DPJ is closer to the LDP.”

In a desperate move last November, Fukuda tried and failed to form a “grand coalition” with the DPJ. Iwai, however, said it would have been hard for the DPJ to shake hands with the LDP soon after the landslide victory in the Upper House election.

Meanwhile, the strain between the conservative LDP and New Komeito, which is backed by Japan’s biggest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, has also been widely reported. In fact, Fukuda’s resignation was what New Komeito wanted, Iwai said.

Lately, Fukuda had been seen giving in to the demands of New Komeito on various occasions. Just last week, the government reluctantly included income-tax cuts for low-income earners in its economic stimulus package.

New Komeito had also been urging that an election 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.

“Things are going along the scenario written by New Komeito, including the dissolution of the Lower House and the call for an election in the near future,” Iwai said. “New Komeito is no longer the obedient party, which will make it harder for the LDP” in the coming days.

Reporters snubbed

Kyodo News

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s secretary told the press club Tuesday that he will not be responding to reporters anymore since he is resigning.

“I thought I should not make needless noise” before stepping down, Fukuda was quoted as saying.

But the aide added that Fukuda will answer questions from time to time “flexibly” if major events occur.