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Yet Another Japanese Prime Minister Bites the Dust

Two Japanese leaders have now resigned after less than a year in office. What's going on?

by
Garrett DeOrio

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September 8, 2008 - 1:09 am
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In retrospect, it was a long time coming.  Like his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda had faced basement-level approval ratings for most of his term. Factional divisions within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party — often a headache for Abe and his predecessor, the popular reformer Junichiro Koizumi — grew to the point at which even the LDP’s coalition partner, the New Komeito, was calling for Fukuda to either call a general election or step aside. He just wasn’t the man to lead the ruling camp to victory and his unpopularity was likely to hurt New Komeito in next summer’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections.

As if that weren’t enough, Fukuda’s August 1st Cabinet reshuffle left him with a farm minister beset by allegations of improper reporting of political expenses — the same sort of scandal that had crippled the Abe administration for most of its existence.

In retrospect, the writing was on the wall.  Yasuo Fukuda had been elected president of the LDP, and hence prime minister, on the assumption that he would get the party in shape for a general election.  His goals, if they existed, were unclear, even unstated.  He was praised for his congeniality, his political longevity, and his ability to work with both the young and old elements of the party, not for his leadership or vision.  After Abe’s vague, pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about a “Beautiful Japan” and his ignoring of the issues of concern to the electorate, a steady hand, one of the “grown ups,” was just what was needed.

It didn’t work that way, though.  Just before Fukuda won the premiership, the opposition Democratic Party won a majority in the Upper House of the Diet, placing the LDP in an unfamiliar situation — not being able to do whatever it felt like with minimal opposition.  Last year’s fall extraordinary Diet session was pure gridlock.  Little was accomplished and the ruling camp was forced to rely on its Lower House supermajority to override the effective veto of contentious bills by the DPJ-controlled Upper House.  This past spring’s ordinary Diet session was more of the same.

Gridlock is not business as usual in Japan.  The public blamed Fukuda’s weak leadership.

The upcoming extraordinary Diet session, set to begin on September 12, was going to be more of the same.  The standoff over renewal of the bill authorizing Japan’s assistance to the ISAF in Afghanistan by refueling coalition ships in the Indian Ocean was going to occur again and would be joined by a handful of equally contentious issues in a relatively short 70-day session.

So, in retrospect, it should not have been a surprise when Fukuda went before the press at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, September 1 to announce his resignation — 355 days after his predecessor did the same, having served 341 days as Japan’s prime minister.  People were shocked, though; as with Abe’s rather sudden resignation, few saw it coming when it did.

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