Challenges mounting for Japan's leader

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am

It is tempting to imagine Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda delighting in the criticism now being hurled at political pollsters in the US after misreading this week's New Hampshire primaries.

Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic race, despite a well-publicised double-digit lead enjoyed by her rival Barack Obama in polls conducted before the voting started.

Pollsters, of course, have never claimed to be infallible and Mr Fukuda must be hoping they aren't as he surveys the considerable pressures now mounting on his own prime ministership since taking office in September.

His personal approval ratings are slipping into the low thirties while a respected survey in the Mainichi newspaper this week noted that more Japanese would vote for the opposition in possible Lower House elections this year than Mr Fukuda's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The problem for Mr Fukuda is that in Japan conventional wisdom suggests leaders simply don't recover from bad poll ratings. And while Mr Fukuda hasn't yet plumbed the depths hit by his predecessor Shinzo Abe, who didn't even last a year before bowing out amid ill-health and a cabinet plagued by scandal, a marked trend is developing.

One of the reasons popularity polls are seen as so important is the nature of Japanese politics, which for decades has been dominated by the LDP's grip on power.

An old political maxim suggests the LDP is neither liberal, nor democratic nor a party. Instead, it is a collection of factions who have traditionally favoured private deals hammered out in smoke-filled rooms.

And when the polls are well down, internal forces start to stir and the party's unity crumbles beneath the weight of naked ambition.

Mr Fukuda's position looks particularly tricky.

Not only has he got his own party to contend with, but he must navigate the uncharted waters of having the upper house now in the hands of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

The political pain of that situation - enough to send Mr Abe over the edge last year - was all too clear yesterday. Mr Fukuda relied on a constitutional override to push through laws allowing a resumption of a Japanese naval mission to support US-led military operations in Afghanistan.

Already voted down by the upper house, the LDP relied on its majority of more than two-thirds of the lower house to ram the bill home - using a constitutional procedure not imposed since 1951.

The opposition, wary of their own popularity rating, will continue to let many less contentious bills through but are now in a position to be able to cherry-pick their issues, seeking to block unpopular actions, exposing the LDP to further pain if they then hit the override button.

Potentially thorny budget debates are next on the agenda and Mr Fukuda is also going to have to confront the fact that the government is likely to break an earlier promise to ease a major pensions blunder by March.

Government admissions that some 50 million pension payments had not been entered properly played a significant factor in the unprecedented upper house defeat last July. Millions of retirees are still not receiving the pensions they are due - and have paid for - and seasoned analysts in Tokyo warn the situation is potentially volatile.

Mr Fukuda, however, has appeared far more confident on the international stage, where he has started to make good on promises to live up to the ambitions of his prime minister father by dragging Japan closer to China and the rest of the region.

Mr Fukuda appears determined to avoid any election or leadership challenge before at least July, when he will host his fellow Group of Eight leaders in Tokyo. That event stands to further burnish his credentials as a statesman.

Mr Abe won praise for his international efforts even as his popularity dropped. Mr Fukuda risks a similar situation as the domestic challenges mount.