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Fukuda’s pain is Aso’s gain

The focal point in Japanese politics has been shifting from when Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will call general elections to who will replace him.

As late as a month or two ago, there were hardly any calls within his Liberal Democratic Party to hold Fukuda accountable for the current political turmoil. Many attributed the problems to the incompetence of his immediate predecessor, Shinzo Abe, as they led to the LDP’s resounding defeat in the Upper House election last July.

Now, however, many wonder how much longer Fukuda can remain at the helm, especially after he reportedly confided to a close journalist friend that he was at a loss as to what to do and how.

After an abortive attempt to form a “grand coalition” between his LDP and the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan last year, Fukuda has faced a number of crises, including the sharp fall in stock prices and the collision between a Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis vessel and a fishing boat.

Adding salt to Fukuda’s wounds were the results of two mayoral elections Feb. 17. In Kyoto, the hometown of LDP secretary general Bunmei Ibuki, a candidate supported not only by the governing coalition of the LDP and Komeito but also by the opposition DPJ and Social Democrat Party defeated a Communist opponent by only 951 votes.

In Gunma’s prefectural seat, Maebashi, next door to Fukuda’s hometown of Takasaki, the LDP candidate was defeated by the DPJ-backed incumbent.

These events have fostered the view within the LDP that it would be impossible to win in the next general elections under Fukuda, thus setting up a race to succeed him. Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso appears to be the front-runner. He has not held a post since he lost to Fukuda in the LDP presidential election last autumn after Abe resigned. He has since gained popularity with a broad spectrum of the party rank and file.

Moreover, he has powerful supporters in former Prime Minister Abe and Shoichi Nakagawa, ex-chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council. The trio share strong bonds in conservative ideology. Aso’s de facto mentor is Yoshihide Suga, former minister of internal affairs and communications. Following Suga’s advice, Aso has begun wooing support from rival intraparty factions, and has secretly met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura.

Aso’s weakness is that he heads a small faction of only 18 lawmakers. If Prime Minister Fukuda manages to put off general elections until the expiration of the Lower House members’ tenure in September next year, Aso’s popularity could lose steam.

Bent on stopping Aso is Makoto Koga, former transport minister. The two diametrically oppose each other in ideology and tactics. While Aso favors amending the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Koga says he won’t let anyone touch it.

Koga’s fundamental strategy is to become a kingmaker capable of selecting a candidate who can outperform Aso in a bid to head the LDP. For that reason, he is attempting to let Fukuda remain in power as long as possible.

Among new aspirants to succeed Fukuda is Nobuaki Ishihara, former chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council and a son of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Late last year he joined the faction headed by Taku Yamasaki, ex-LDP vice president, thereby breaking away from Abe and Aso, who had long been at loggerheads with Yamasaki.

Mediating between Yamasaki and Ishihara was Seiichiro Ujiie, president of Nippon Television Network Corp. In the LDP presidential election last year, Ujiie and Tsuneo Watanabe, the media tycoon who heads the Yomiuri newspaper group (which includes Nippon Television), strongly supported Fukuda in the fight against Aso. Their apparent intention is to promote Ishihara as the successor to Fukuda. Watanabe and Ujiie met with Aso on Jan. 23 to seek support for Fukuda. But Aso refused to comply.

It may not be easy for Ishihara to defeat Aso in a two-man race for the LDP presidency. But if three or more candidates seek the post and nobody wins a majority in the first ballot, then Ishihara may emerge as the winner via maneuvering by factional leaders including Koga.

A dark horse in the LDP presidential race is former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, a woman with enthusiastic supporters and bitter enemies. Her unusually keen political intuition was proven when she resigned from her Cabinet post as defense minister as she sensed the imminent fall of the Abe regime.

Should Aso fail to win confidence as the one to lead the LDP to an election victory, Koike may be able to sell herself as the nation’s first female prime minister.

Nakagawa may appear to be a formidable candidate, but he says he is interested only in making Aso the next prime minister. This presumably means that Nakagawa is aiming to come to power after Fukuda’s immediate successor.

This year could be the final opportunity for Koichi Kato, former LDP secretary general, to make a run. On the strength of his knowledge on diplomatic issues, he has been gaining liberal support.

The real long shot is former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Although he has repeatedly said he has no intention of returning to power, some business leaders hope he will make a comeback and restart his reform agenda. A ranking DPJ official has warned that Koizumi is just pretending to be finished.

There is a Japanese political superstition that says a person who has lost an election cannot become prime minister. Aso has indicated to close friends that he may be poised to break that superstition. He did indeed lose in his third attempt to be elected to the Lower House.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics.