Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori reorganized his Cabinet on Tuesday. It continues the tripartite ruling alliance of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, even though each party lost seats in the June 25 Lower House election. This new Cabinet is officially referred to as the prime minister’s “second” Cabinet, but it is the first administration that Mr. Mori has put together at his own initiative.
The first Mori Cabinet, hastily assembled in early April after the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was hospitalized, experienced an identity crisis of sorts. It was widely seen as a de facto extension of the Obuchi Cabinet. That is not surprising since there was no time to map out new policy initiatives. Instead, Mr. Mori reappointed all members of the previous administration and vowed to carry on faithfully all the policies pursued by his predecessor.
Even in the newly shuffled Cabinet, key ministers have been retained. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono is essential to ensuring diplomatic continuity. That is especially important given the role he will play in hosting the Kyushu-Okinawa summit meeting of leading industrialized nations to be held this month. Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Mr. Taichi Sakaiya, the director general of the Economic Planning Agency, also will continue serving in the same Cabinet posts.
The two economics ministers must play leading roles in pursuing the most urgent task of the new government: making sure the economy gets back on the path of sustainable growth. The economy expanded in the first quarter of this year for the first time in three years, but the prospects for recovery remain unclear. The government is set to continue pump priming, putting fiscal consolidation on the back burner. It is estimated that the combined long-term debt burden of the central and local governments will reach 645 trillion yen, about 30 percent more than the nation’s GDP, at the end of the current fiscal year.
The postelection policy agreement reached by the three ruling parties calls for the vigorous promotion of economic recovery and structural reform. The statement rules out “expedient tax increases” and stresses instead the need to streamline the bureaucracy as well as the spending structure. These pledges must not end up as empty slogans.
Following the general election, Mr. Mori said the coalition had been given a mandate to continue running the government, pointing out that the three parties together gained more than an absolute majority. The heads of the two coalition partners spoke in the same vein. The basic lesson for the coalition is different, however. The parties should have learned that they have been preoccupied with the political “numbers game” to bolster their power base. As a result, they have neglected the long-term reforms needed to rebuild Japan.
The coalition no longer holds the strength it had before the election. Given the dozens of seats they lost, they clearly suffered a setback at the polls. Obviously, the mandate they received is qualified at best. The voters did not give the coalition parties carte blanche. The ruling parties will have committed a serious mistake if they believe voters threw their full weight behind the previous administration’s policies. While allowing the triumvirate to stay at the helm, voters delivered a stinging rebuke for the way it has been running the affairs of state. All members of the Cabinet — both new and old — must bear this in mind.
The election made it clear that the public wants change, as evidenced by the emergence of younger politicians and the defeat of old-timers, including incumbent Cabinet ministers. From this point of view, a Cabinet lineup that features some younger politicians seems to respond to the changing times. Yet developments in the last stages of Cabinet formation, however, prove that old habits, such as making “revolving-door” appointments based on the factional balance of power, die hard. As a result, the new Cabinet stands on a kind of two-tiered balance of power: the traditional factional power balance within the LDP and a lopsided power-sharing between the LDP and its two coalition partners.
The new administration has the historic mission of setting the stage for Japan’s entry into the 21st century. With central government offices scheduled for a sweeping reorganization next January, there is already speculation that the second Mori Cabinet will be reorganized before the end of the year. With or without a reshuffle, however, the new Cabinet must do its utmost as a competent administration, and not be seen as a mere “caretaker government” in a transitional period. Otherwise the ebbing public trust in government could go into a tailspin, with dire implications for the coalition’s staying power.
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