Fukuda's triumph of low expectations | South China Morning Post
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Fukuda's triumph of low expectations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2008, 12:00am

Grey, stolid and safe, the so-called virtues of outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, once matched those of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Now, political impotence has been added to the list after a bruising year - and Mr Fukuda's style instead looks like a metaphor for the unprecedented troubles of the LDP.

The party that has dominated Japanese politics for 53 years is anything but secure.

His departure paves the way for Japan's 11th premier in 15 years - which sits ill with the aura of stability the LDP has traditionally projected and is a matter of concern across East Asia. Japan, despite its sluggish economy and ageing population, remains the world's second-largest economy.

Ashen-faced, the 72-year-old announced his resignation late on Monday, less than a year after taking over from Shinzo Abe, another short-term LDP leader who struggled to assert himself after the charismatic five-year rule of Junichiro Koizumi, who turned the LDP on its head and briefly made the Japanese feel good about themselves.

'I feel that it would be best to hand over the reins of power to a new leader,' Mr Fukuda said. 'I felt we must particularly stress the importance of the economy.

'If it will help even a little bit to make the parliamentary session go smoother, I decided that it might be better for someone other than me to take the lead.'

Despite a reputation as a clear-headed negotiator who could pull disparate forces together, Mr Fukuda struggled to cope with a resurgent opposition Democratic Party of Japan. His term was almost doomed before it began last September when the DPJ won control of the upper house.

While the LDP controlled the more important lower house, the Democrats - after years in the wilderness - were suddenly able to block or delay key bills and veto important appointments. This forced the LDP to invoke override powers to push through legislation - for which it paid a political price.

Mr Fukuda, instead of tackling the major issues facing the country, found himself expending considerable political capital just to conduct ordinary day-to-day business, including the once-routine renewal of the legal mandate for Japanese naval ships to refuel US-led forces in Afghanistan.

He attempted so-called 'peace talks' with the DPJ's hard-driving leader, Ichiro Ozawa, but they came to nothing. Mr Ozawa now appears determined to press his advantage as the nation finds itself back in recession.

Mr Fukuda's popularity tells its own story. It has fallen from more than 60 per cent to under 30 per cent in opinion polls. Polls have a habit of going only one way in Japanese politics, and a new leader can be expected to cement any honeymoon bounce by calling a snap election.

For all his woes, Mr Fukuda's reign was not all failure. Given that he was always going to be a stop-gap, it could be argued that his term was something of a triumph of low expectations.

Foreign policy has always been close to his heart, particularly the need for Japan to reach out to China and the region. Like so many senior LDP figures, Mr Fukuda has a formidable pedigree. His father was Takeo Fukuda, the foreign minister and prime minister through the 1970s who was instrumental in forging ties with Beijing.

Mr Fukuda moved swiftly to accelerate the thaw overseen by Mr Abe after the frost of the Koizumi years. He hosted the visit of President Hu Jintao to Tokyo in May, during which the leaders signed a landmark declaration to cement future ties. Mr Hu was the first Chinese president to visit since Jiang Zemin eight years ago.

The visit was followed by a deal in July to jointly exploit gas fields straddling long-disputed waters in the East China Sea. Significantly, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing was this week quick to highlight the importance of Mr Fukuda's rule.

Analysts in both capitals believe it will be difficult for any successor to turn the clock back too far, given widespread public and business acceptance of the need for improved ties with China, now Japan's biggest trading partner. 'It is not just the leaders doing the big symbolic things, but at all levels both sides are talking in a way we simply weren't just three or four years ago,' a veteran Japanese envoy said.

Even Taro Aso, the former foreign minister seen as most likely to succeed Mr Fukuda, is expected to face pressure to curb his nationalistic instincts. At one point, it appeared questionable whether Mr Fukuda would last long enough to host the Group of Eight leaders' summit in Hokkaido in July. But he managed, and his efforts to instigate a fresh international drive to curb global warming were widely praised.

Another factor may give Mr Fukuda succour. If his own tenure has been one of immense frustration, the prospects for his replacement - to be chosen in a party meeting on September 22, the day Mr Fukuda retires - may be even worse. The LDP has long been accused of being neither liberal, nor democratic, nor actually a party. A collection of embittered factions and rivalries, there is a chance it might break up given the unprecedented pressures it is facing. Opinion polls suggest it faces a hammering when the election comes.


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