Home front baggage cramps leaders

Progress rides on domestic situations of the G8 chiefs


TOYAKO, Hokkaido — The Group of Eight leaders headed for home Wednesday evening after wrapping up their three-day annual summit.

For U.S. President George W. Bush, it was his eighth and final meeting. But several of his fellow summiteers return home wondering whether they’ll be packing their bags for next year’s G8 gathering in Italy.

“Many of the most powerful G8 members, including host Japan, (sent to the Toyako) summit leaders who do not firmly control their parties or legislatures, who are deeply unpopular with their voters and who will not be in office long enough personally to deliver the promises they make,” said John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.

The success or failure of G8 summits often comes down to the domestic political situations facing its leaders. Public opinion polls, upcoming elections and whether the opposition controls the legislature have as much, if not more, influence on the outcome of a G8 summit.

All politics, especially international politics, is essentially local, the late U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once famously said.

This year, the G8’s most prominent leaders went to Toyako as lame ducks or close to it.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda opened the summit with a support rate of around 25 percent, the Upper House in the hands of the opposition and growing pressure from members within his own party to reshuffle the Cabinet next month.

On specific issues like climate change that Japan wanted to address at the G8, there was, and remains, great opposition within politically powerful sectors of Japanese industry, especially steel and electric power companies, to committing to tough midterm greenhouse gas emission targets. This forced Fukuda to de-emphasize midterm goals and concentrate on long-term targets by 2050.

Although his performance at Toyako may give him a slight bump in the polls, analysts and some media speculate that he has seen his last summit, and some even say he will call an election next spring, well before the G8 meets in Italy.

However, U.S. analysts who follow Japanese politics say that even if Fukuda exits, members of his Liberal Democratic Party faction may still retain control of the government.

“I would not count the Fukuda (Machimura) faction out. There are still several potentially strong individuals in the wings,” said Robert Eldridge, director of Osaka University’s U.S.-Japan Alliance Division. “It’s hard to imagine an immediate return to the hawkish but shallow leadership of (former Prime Minister) Shinzo Abe. Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso is seen as equally out of touch.”

As far as Bush is concerned, the president has been traveling the world these past few months, attempting to salvage his legacy abroad despite approval ratings at home that are now under 25 percent, among the lowest for any president in the past 70 years.

Fellow Republican John McCain, who hopes to succeed Bush in the November election, has gone out of his way to distance himself from the president, while Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who holds the lead in many polls, constantly tells voters that electing McCain is tantamount to electing Bush to a third term.

Bush, who entered office in 2001 doubting climate change was real and angering the world by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, came to Toyako and endorsed long-term reduction targets of 50 percent by 2050 and committed to ensuring that a post-Kyoto Protocol agreement is concluded next year in Copenhagen.

Why the change of heart? U.S. pundits point to a number of reasons, but mainly because American public opinion on climate change has drastically changed since 2001.

Over the past seven years, a growing number of states, cities and towns have adopted resolutions or binding legislation committing them to drastic emissions cuts, sometimes by as much as 80 percent, within the next few decades.

Thus politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties are now jumping on the green bandwagon, dragging a sometimes reluctant Bush along with them.

McCain is considered by environmentalists to be far more green than Bush ever was, while Obama has won praise for emphasizing the importance of further development of green technologies, especially for automobiles.

Other G8 leaders, though not considered lame ducks, face political trouble.

In the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown’s approval rating has plummeted since he took over last year.

Just before the summit he suffered two by-election setbacks, with the one immediately before the summit reducing his party to a fifth-place finish.

France and Canada’s leaders have also faced problems. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has seen his popularity ratings sink in recent months.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority government remains tied with the opposition, according to local media polls, as Canadian voters grow increasingly concerned about the economy.

Some hope that since Bush will definitely not be in Italy for the 2009 summit, attendees will be able to more firmly address key issues, particularly support for midterm emissions targets, that he has strongly opposed.

But Mika Obayashi of the 2008 G8 Summit NGO Forum calls that wishful thinking.

“We don’t hold out a lot of hope for major success at next year’s summit with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in charge,” she said.