In an effort to assert his leadership and bolster his sagging political fortunes, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori elected for a mix of the old and new in Tuesday’s Cabinet reshuffle.
But Mori himself may be the most unpopular name in the new Cabinet lineup, according to recent opinion polls.
Mori — whose Liberal Democratic Party was unable to secure a majority in the Lower House elections — was able to maintain power thanks to his coalition allies. He now appears to have chosen his own Cabinet.
Mori made no changes to the Cabinet after he took over from former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi following his stroke in early April. Obuchi died in mid-May.
Prior to the June 25 general elections, close aides to Mori had stressed he would bring his own style to government after forming a new Cabinet.
But in reality, his new Cabinet can hardly be called his own because it reflects the current power balance among rival LDP factions, with Mori appointing portfolios based on factional requests. The LDP’s coalition partners — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — received one post each as they had requested.
Mori apparently prioritized maintaining harmony within the coalition and the LDP when selecting the Cabinet, as the Lower House elections saw the ruling bloc lose 65 seats — even while maintaining a comfortable Lower House majority.
The short life expectancy of this Cabinet may also have been a factor in Mori’s decisions. Administrative reforms in January 2001 will cut the number of government ministries, with another Cabinet reshuffle expected by the end of the year.
Appointing close aide Hidenao Nakagawa as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Okinawa Development Agency chief is one of the few choices that reflect Mori’s own volition.
The fact that Mori’s first Cabinet included key figures of the LDP faction formerly led by Keizo Obuchi — including Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki and deputy chief Cabinet secretary Fukushiro Nukaga — was speculated to have weakened his leadership.
Indeed, Aoki had earlier refused the post, saying: “The prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary should be of one mind. Prime Minister Mori and I are on good terms personally but he should have a person belonging to his own faction as his chief Cabinet secretary.”
Mori appointed Nakagawa, former deputy secretary general of the LDP, to concurrently serve as a top official in charge of information technology at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.
Yoriko Kawaguchi, executive director of Suntory Ltd. and a former official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, was chosen from outside power circles to serve as Environment Agency chief in another fresh appointment.
Most of the remaining Cabinet postings were distributed to LDP factions in accordance with their representation in the Diet.
The largest faction, which used to be led by Keizo Obuchi, received three posts. Three others — that led by Mori, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato’s faction and the one led jointly by senior LDP members Takami Eto and Shizuka Kamei — were given two posts each. The three smaller factions received one post each.
In addition, Mori appointed two LDP Upper House members as ministers.
NCP head Chikage Ogi was named construction minister, while New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki again avoided a ministerial post. He said he will concentrate on party affairs prior to next year’s Upper House elections.
But the appointment of Ogi, who expressed interest in education, was unexpected. The recent bribery scandal, in which veteran LDP lawmaker and former Construction Minister Eiichi Nakao was arrested, may have prompted Mori to appoint a fresh face from outside the LDP.
The reappointment of Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Economic Planning Agency Chief Taichi Sakaiya and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono reflect Mori’s intention to focus on economic policies and the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa later this month.
Miyazawa will fly to Fukuoka this week to participate in a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of Seven nations. Kono will chair the G8 foreign ministers’ conference in Miyazaki Prefecture the following week before fronting the July 21-23 G8 summit in Nago, Okinawa.
On economic policy, Mori is likely to continue prioritizing economic recovery before implementing fiscal reforms to address the ballooning national debt. Although the economy has shown recovery signs, it is not yet on a full-fledged recovery path.
Indicating the government’s direction, reappointed LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei said the LDP will maintain its current stimulus policy for the time being and push the government to spend 500 billion yen in reserve funds on public-works projects by the end of July to boost the nation’s economy.
Mori will face a test over his ability to implement these policies under the new government and over his ability to secure consensus within the LDP, which has recently lost influential senior members such as former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Obuchi. Takeshita died just before last month’s general elections.
Although faction leaders have agreed to let Mori retain his position, the ramifications of the LDP’s poor showing in the Lower House elections must still be resolved. This remains a potential threat to the future stability of Mori’s administration.
Party leaders have emphasized the fact that the coalition retained its majority while glossing over the loss of 38 seats from its pre-election strength. Moreover, several veteran lawmakers lost their seats — especially in metropolitan areas.
Kato, the leader of the LDP’s third-largest faction who finished second after Keizo Obuchi in the previous LDP presidential election in September 1999, recently told Mori that his faction sees the recent election results as the LDP’s defeat. He has urged party leaders to examine the election results as soon as possible.