As expected, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has completed his Cabinet reshuffle. Yet at a time of political tumult, there is much that is familiar in the new Cabinet and LDP leadership, and the means by which they were chosen. Despite being assaulted on all sides, Mr. Mori and the Liberal Democratic Party continue to practice politics-as-usual. It bodes ill for the new government’s prospects, and the nation as well.
The reshuffle was expected after the Diet session ended last week. The reorganization of the bureaucracy, scheduled to go into effect in January, added to the momentum to put a new Cabinet in place. But the surprise resignation of Mr. Hiromu Nonaka as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party hinted at more sweeping change than might have been anticipated. It was not to be.
Following the resignation of the Cabinet Tuesday morning, Mr. Mori named his new team. Many of the key players are familiar. Mr. Yohei Kono retains the foreign minister’s portfolio, and former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa continues to serve as minister of finance. Other carry-overs include Mrs. Chikage Ogi, head of the New Conservative Party, who will head the new Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, Mr. Takeo Hiranuma, former head of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry who takes over the expanded Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda. Mr. Shizuka Kamei also retains his position as chairman of the party’s Policy Research Council.
In keeping with tradition, posts were doled in accordance with factional strength within the LDP. The Hashimoto faction, the party’s biggest group, got five seats, and the Mori and Eto-Kamei faction took three apiece.
The biggest surprise is the appointment of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto as minister in charge of administrative reform, which puts him in charge of implementing the reform of government ministries that is to take effect next month. As the head of the largest faction, Mr. Hashimoto’s support for the new Cabinet was expected; but the presence of two former prime ministers is unprecedented, and underscores the LDP’s determination to bolster the government.
The new Cabinet takes office at a time when public support for LDP-led politics is plunging. Mr. Mori’s popularity ratings, for instance, have tumbled to 10 percent. Public distrust seems to stem from the careless errors and scandals that have surrounded the Mori administration, such as a tactless disclosure by the prime minister about secret Japan-North Korea talks over Japanese allegedly abducted by North Korean agents and the resignation of Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa over an extramarital affair linked to a drug investigation. At its base, the issue is the clandestine manner in which Mr. Mori was chosen to succeed Keizo Obuchi when the latter suffered a stroke and widespread public doubts about his ability to lead the nation.
Those doubts led former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato to throw down the gauntlet to Mr. Mori, vowing to support — along with members of his faction — an opposition motion of no confidence against the Cabinet. But the would-be reformer changed his mind at the last moment, an about-face that dashed hopes for a political realignment, at least for now, and increased public disillusionment with LDP politics.
To Mr. Mori and his supporters, however, the defeat of the motion was a Pyrrhic victory. Mr. Kato’s rebellion opened new cracks in the LDP ranks and reinforced the perception that the prime minister is fighting an uphill battle to stay at the helm. Criticism from allies in the party, including Mr. Nonaka, has added to the image of an administration under siege. With approval ratings hitting new lows, the question now seems to be when, not whether, he will step down.
To his credit, Mr. Mori’s government won passage of key bills in the last Diet session. A basic law to promote the information-technology revolution was approved, as was an extra spending budget to implement 11 trillion yen worth of projects, including those designed to build an “e-Japan.” Other key legislation included a bill to revise the Upper House election system, a law aimed at stamping out graft among politicians and their aides, increases in medical expenses paid by the elderly, legislation that permits emergency inspection of unidentified foreign ships in areas around Japan, and stricter penalties against juvenile crime.
Yet even that list of accomplishments is not enough to instill confidence in the government. Merely changing the makeup of his team is unlikely to help.
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