Waffling Aso roasted on public griddle

Prime minister's rapid stance changes said to reflect weakness for gabbing, Cabinet built to win but not to last


If there is one thing contributing to Prime Minister Taro Aso’s sagging approval rate, it’s his flip-flopping on the issues.

Since his inauguration in September, Aso’s stance-switching has been jumped on by the media, giving ammunition to his opponents and throwing his party into chaos.

Most recently, Aso shocked the political world by saying he was originally against postal privatization when, in 2005, he was a Cabinet minister under then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who championed that goal.

During the Liberal Democratic Party presidential poll in September, Aso, who was internal affairs and communications minister under Koizumi, stressed that he was “in charge of postal privatization,” padding his profile for the race.

Heizo Takenaka was actually handling postal privatization under Koizumi more directly because he was appointed another ministerial post designated to deal only with the privatization.

Aso’s rhetoric in September was that because his post oversees postal services, he was “in charge of postal privatization.” However, Aso, who is also LDP president, said Feb. 5 that Takenaka was put in charge of postal privatization because he himself opposed it.

“It is awfully displeasing to be falsely accused” of promoting postal privatization, Aso told the Lower House Budget Committee that day.

Aso later tried to explain the contradictions by saying he was internal affairs and communications minister for two terms, but in charge of privatization only for the first one.

He also said that although he originally opposed the postal privatization, he studied it and felt it would work, and thus eventually backed it.

More of Aso’s flip-flopping was seen in debates on the government practices of “amakudari” and “watari,” which enrich senior bureaucrats by arranging cushy jobs for them in quasi-governmental firms via retirement.

Aso drew criticism from both the ruling and opposition camps for approving an ordinance that gives the prime minister the authority to approve certain amakudari and watari arrangements for the next three years.

In amakudari, bureaucrats receive lucrative postretirement jobs at companies or organizations presided over by the ministries they left. Watari is amakudari done multiple times per recipient, each paying out departure benefits.

While Aso had said he would approve rare cases of watari if the bureaucrat in question is considered essential at another company, he changed his stance as criticism grew and ended up declaring he would ban all watari arrangements by the end of the year.

Aso’s situation seems to be a case of “the less said, the better.” Many major media polls show the Aso Cabinet languishing below 20 percent in public approval.

A few months ago, Aso insulted the elderly by calling them lazy and disoriented, shooting his popularity in the foot.

Hidekazu Kawai, professor emeritus who teaches politics at Gakushuin University, said Aso’s flip-flopping is part of the turmoil that was expected due to the nature of his Cabinet, which was originally formed to get the party through a general election Aso was expected to promptly call.

“The Aso administration was created for the short term, so if it continues longer, more turmoil is inevitable and it will get deeper,” Kawai said.

Kawai said Aso changes his mind a lot because his manifesto is unclear and his advisers aren’t formulating effective policies.

He said Aso appeared to be very careful about flip-flopping at first, suggesting his remarks on postal privatization seemed aimed at showing sincerity by being honest.

Unfortunately, it backfired.

“It was seen as imprudent,” Kawai said.

As Aso continues to make unpredictable and negative remarks, some members of his party can’t help but be perplexed. “I just don’t understand why this happens,” one young LDP member said.