The administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is in crisis, visibly weakened by the resignation of Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa over a drug-related extramarital affair.
During its past six months in office, the Mori administration enjoyed a semblance of stability despite its low approval ratings, in part because Mori has no powerful rivals inside or outside the Liberal Democratic Party. Now that his right-hand man has fallen, however, he stands on the edge of a precipice.
The LDP’s mainstream factions that support Mori are planning to bolster his administration through a reshuffle of the Cabinet and party executives in December. The big question is how much public support the prime minister and his Cabinet will have at that time.
The Mori administration has only itself to blame for the public’s increasing distrust of politics. For one thing, Nakagawa, the man most trusted by Mori, seriously undermined his own credibility by falsely denying charges that he had tipped off his lover about an imminent police crackdown on drug use.
He later admitted the charges after a tape recording of his phone conversation with his mistress — in which he gave her the tip — was aired on a private network. The larger problem here is that the leaking of confidential investigative information by the chief Cabinet secretary could constitute a breach of law.
His alleged ties to a rightist came to the surface after a weekly magazine carried a photo of him dining with that rightist. The government, responding to written questions from opposition Diet members, issued a statement flatly denying any such rightist connections. The statement had been formally approved by the Cabinet.
The Mori administration was hit by another scandal in July, when Kimitaka Kuze, chairman of the Financial Reconstruction Commission, was forced to resign over the fact that he had received benefits from a bank and a real-estate firm. Mori knew when he appointed him chief financial regulator that Kuze had received such benefits.
In both the Nakagawa and Kuze cases, Mori bears responsibility for having selected these politicians as members of his Cabinet. Not only that, Mori himself has also aroused public mistrust by repeatedly making off-the-cuff remarks that raised questions about his fitness to serve as prime minister.
In May, for instance, he described Japan as a “nation of gods with the Emperor at the center.” The opposition parties lashed out at the statement, saying that it denied the nation’s democratic Constitution, which states that sovereignty rests with the people.
In June, during the campaign for the Lower House election, Mori made a mockery of voters, saying, “I wish (undecided) voters would just sleep at home on polling day.” But instead of staying at home, many of those people voted. The result was a rout for the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the New Conservative Party.
Just last month, at a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Seoul, Mori committed a diplomatic blunder by revealing a secret Japanese plan in its negotiations with Pyongyang over the alleged abductions of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents. Mori reportedly told Blair that Japan was considering a face-saving gimmick that would “have the missing Japanese show up in a third country.” Young Turks in the LDP called for his resignation.
Kyodo News, meanwhile, reported recently that Mori made a “secret promise” to send 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea during his visit to Pyongyang in 1997 as head of a parliamentary group representing the three coalition parties. He was then chairman of the LDP’s Executive Council.
The government has in fact decided to ship 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea — a volume that far exceeds the 195,000 tons requested by the United Nations’ World Food Program. Although Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda flatly denies the Kyodo report, suspicion lingers that the government decision may have been based on Mori’s “promise.”
There is no doubt that Mori’s “third country” remark on the abduction case and his “secret promise” of rice aid have seriously impaired the credibility of Japanese diplomacy. With its public support diminishing, the Mori administration may face considerable difficulties not only in normalization negotiations with North Korea, but also in peace treaty talks with Russia.
In the Diet, meanwhile, the coalition parties have used heavy-handed tactics in getting an Upper House electoral reform bill through the Diet. In the Upper House, the coalition’s uncompromising attitude drove the opposition to boycott the debate. As a result, the bill was railroaded through the upper chamber in the absence of all major opposition parties.
The ruling parties have a powerful motive: They want to improve their chances in next summer’s Upper House election. The revised polling system is expected to make it easier to collect votes through interest groups and support organizations.
All this reveals the old makeup of the LDP leadership and its insensitivity to the changes of the times — changes that were demonstrated in last month’s gubernatorial election in Nagano Prefecture and a Lower House by-election in Tokyo. In Nagano, writer Yasuo Tanaka defeated a former vice governor, putting an end to more than 40 years of politics dominated by former prefectural-hall officials. In Tokyo, Etsuko Kawada backed by unaffiliated voters won over party candidates, providing a reminder of voter’s deep mistrust of political parties.
Opinion polls find that one in three voters does not support any party. This does not mean, however, that these unaffiliated voters are not interested in politics. They express their will strongly in an election in which a political issue is contested in clear-cut terms.
The Nagano poll showed the growing power of “no party” voters not only in urban centers, but also in rural regions that supposedly form electoral bases for the LDP, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Social Democratic Party.
Ultimately, elections are the best way to restore vitality to politics. It is quite unlikely, however, that the Mori administration will call a general election if it risks losing it. Its primary objective is to maintain the current coalition and the current alliance of the LDP’s mainstream factions by winning next year’s Upper House election.
But there are no assurances that things will develop in its favor. The chances are that the Mori coalition will face even stronger head winds as it tries harder to cling to power for fear of a thumbs down from the people.
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