Successive resignations of two female Cabinet members dealt a blow to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But should the opposition camp be credited for its attack that forced them to step down or did the administration manage to minimize the impact by counteracting quickly?
On Oct. 21, a day after the two submitted resignations, Yoshitada Konoike, a veteran Upper House member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, teased opposition legislators by saying that more damage could have been done to Abe if the opposition camp had set the stage for one minister to step down first and delayed the action on the other until, say, next spring, rather than forcing both to resign simultaneously.
Abe accepted the resignations of Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima from their respective portfolios at the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade, and the Ministry of Justice (after Obuchi was accused of not keeping accurate records of her political funds and Matsushima was alleged to have violated the election law by distributing paper fans with her slogans printed on them in her constituency).
What Konoike meant was that if the opposition had let Matsushima, who to him was quite hard-nosed, remain at her post, she would have committed a blunder sooner or later, but that by forcing her to step down with Obuchi the opposition parties lost another opportunity to find fault with Abe’s appointees.
This view may be placing excessive blame on parliamentary tactics of the opposition parties because regardless of their course of action Abe may well have fired Matsushima anyway.
Originally the prime minister and his close associates wanted to take their time in dealing with the problems involving Obuchi and Matsushima, especially because Abe had worked hard to persuade Obuchi to join the Cabinet and, moreover, he wanted to take care not to harm her popularity, which was so strong that she was reputed to be the leading candidate to become the nation’s first female prime minister.
But the prime minister and his close associates became disconcerted after Obuchi admitted that she could see illegality in what her camp had done. They interpreted this as a sign that she already decided to resign and that by doing so, she was aiming to minimize damage to her and to maintain her clean image, rather than to protect the Abe administration.
Matsushima, on the other hand, badly wanted to keep her Cabinet post because it was expected that she may be defeated in the next election. As a result, the prime minister’s side had to do a lot of persuasion to have her agree to tender her resignation.
Apparently, Abe wanted to avoid repetition of what happened during his first tenure as prime minister in the 2006-07 period. At that time, one Cabinet minister after another resigned in succession in the wake of scandals, leading to the demise of his Cabinet. This time, Abe succeeded in containing two possible successive crises by combining them into one.
Abe now faces the important task of choosing the next course of action in the aftermath of the two resignations and this is where Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga must display his skills for crisis management. Suga’s moves are being closely watched by leaders of the LDP’s intra-party factions. The following are scenarios that we believe Suga might be contemplating.
The first scenario would be an early dissolution of the Lower House by Abe followed by a general election as the political landscape has undergone changes after the two resignations.
The opposition parties and the media would step up their salvos against politics tainted with money and this could go on not only during the current extraordinary session of the Diet through Nov. 30 but also during the regular Diet session that will open soon after the new year begins.
Their political attacks could lead to the discovery of more scandals, which in turn would throw fuel on the fire.
The only way to end this vicious circle would be to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election early enough while the opposition camp is disorganized and remains unprepared for a poll.
Present indications are that should a general election take place soon, the LDP would not lose many of the 294 seats it now holds in the Lower House, far above the majority of 241. Abe and the LDP would be able to characterize the election as an opportunity for the voters to pass judgment on the prime minister’s economic policies, known as “Abenomics.”
The second scenario would be to move up the date for Abe to decide whether or not to raise the consumption tax rate from the current 8 percent to 10 percent effective on Oct. 1 next year as currently provided for by law and to combine such a move with a dissolution of the Lower House in an advantageous way.
With Suga already inclined to postponing the tax hike, Abe in this scenario would have to act as though he had made a painful decision. Opinions within the LDP are split evenly between raising the tax as scheduled and putting it off. But Abe is the person to make the final decision.
He would then hold a press conference and say that he had decided to delay the tax hike after scrutinizing all relevant factors and reveal a new plan for reducing the government’s fiscal debts. He would also say that lower tax rates would be applied to foods and certain other items when the consumption tax rate is raised to 10 percent eventually and that a new panel would be created to design the system to implement the lower tax rates.
These programs would probably be viewed favorably in opinion polls. Although this may lead to the heavy selling of government bonds by non-Japanese subscribers, that could be covered by the Bank of Japan’s easy money policy of a “different dimension,” (which includes massive buying of government bonds in the market by the central bank).
Suga has a haunting trauma about losing a chance to dissolve the Lower House. The LDP lost the reins of government to the Democratic Party of Japan in a general election in 2009 after Prime Minister Taro Aso, who came to power in 2008, postponed the dissolution by one year. Suga, then a close aide to Aso, had advised Aso to put off the dissolution, showing him data that showed that the LDP would lose big if an election was held.
All these factors seem to point to an ultimate surprise that the nation would face — a general election taking place before the end of the year. There are sufficient incentives for Abe to move in that direction as the election campaigns would center around the viability of Abenomics, the postponing of the consumption tax hike and the introduction of lower tax rates on certain items when the tax rate eventually goes up to 10 percent.
If there is a general election, Abe’s decision to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense will become an issue without fail. One question is whether Abe would be able to withstand the debate on the matter.
Former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of Abe, in 1960 took the initiative of amending Japan’s security treaty with the United States, causing a bitter split in public opinion between those who were for the new treaty and those against it.
In his 1981 memoirs, Kishi wrote, ” In those days, many claimed that the new treaty would involve Japan into American nuclear wars. But if one looks at history, the treaty has served to ensure Japan’s security in a desirable manner … I should have dissolved the Lower House to seek the people’s judgment, shortly after returning (from Washington) following the signing of the new treaty … Not having done so is my only regret.”
Suga is haunted by his trauma and Abe by a psychological complex about his grandfather. An analysis of the mental state of these two key persons seems to further strengthen the prospect of an early dissolution of the Lower House and a subsequent general election.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.
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