Japan’s new leader

Updated On: Sep 25, 2007

What a change of leadership Japan has gone through in recent years.

From the flamboyant right-leaning Koizumi who offended Japan’s immediate neighbours with his regular Yasukuni Shrine visits, to the conservative Abe who vowed to change Japan’s constitution and ended up in the hospital for mental stress and gastrointestinal disorder. And now we are back to a seasoned, old-school, veteran politician at the helm of Japan’s political systems. How will the new administration look like?

The Liberal Democratic Party formally elected Yasuo Fukuda as its president, choosing him to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Fukuda won 254 votes from Diet members and 76 from the local chapters. "I will try to revive the Liberal Democratic Party and turn it into a party that can regain people's trust and steadily implement its policies," Fukuda told his colleagues at LDP headquarters in Tokyoafter his victory was announced.

Fukuda’s major and immediate challenge is pushing through the extension of a special law on Japan's naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for coalition antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan which expires Nov. 1 2007. In line with his conciliatory outlook, Fukuda said he would propose talks with the main opposition, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to seek ways for having the mission extended.

Besides this major political battle looming on the horizon, Fukuda is keen to distance himself from Abe’s policies and in some cases, even reverse them. He has faulted Abe for not stepping down earlier after the LDP lost control of the upper house of parliament for the first time in the July elections.  Fukuda has also pledged to ease the pain of rural voters who feel left out of Japan's economic recovery and deserted the LDP in the last election. Mr Fukuda has made it his priority to also tackle the widening social disparities in Japan caused by economic reforms.

One can also expect strong support for Fukuda’s policies within the LDP and an experienced old hand in managing Japan’s complex political structure and system. He served as chief Cabinet secretary under two prime ministers--Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi--for 1,289 days, the longest anyone has served at that position. Fukuda held the powerful post of chief cabinet secretary, the top aide to the premier, for a record three-and-a-half years until 2004, developing a reputation for damage control and effective management of the bureaucracy.

Fukuda’s late father, Takeo, was a former prime minister of Japan. Coincidentally, Mr Fukuda is becoming prime minister at the same age as his father, the late Takeo Fukuda.

Fukuda is also buddy with big industries. He was a former oilman with connections to Japan’s heavy industries. Serious-looking and often suited in grey, Fukuda will probably rely on experience, backdoor dealings and dovish clout rather than populist charisma which he openly admits he lacks. Experience is signified by the fact that Fukuda will be Japan's oldest prime minister on entering office since 1991, a stark contrast to the 53-year-old Abe who was Japan's youngest leader in recent times and faced criticism that he was too inexperienced.

Fukuda also has another set of credentials that will bode him well. He is popular with Asian neighbours for advocating rapprochement with Asian neighbours, particularly China and Korea, belonging to a formerly prestigious pro-China faction (that included fiery personalities like former FM Makiko Tanaka)  within the ruling LDP and the government bureaucracy. This faction was painstakingly dismantled by Koizumi who sought to detach Japan away from Beijing and move closer to Washington. For his grasp of regional geopolitics, Fukuda is respected within the domestic and external diplomatic community.  After all, his father Takeo Fukuda signed the peace-and-friendship treaty with China in 1978. Takeo is also well-known for the Fukuda Doctrine where Japan placed a premium in developing “heart-to-heart” ties with Southeast Asian countries in the 1970s.

It is likely that under Fukuda’s administration, LDP wants to take a break from the unbending and dogmatic neo-Conservative ideology of Abe and his predecessor Koizumi. KoizumiJapan’s answer to the Bush administration and neo-conservatives, had previously based his popularity on flamboyant politics and spearheaded free-market reforms unpopular with the countryside, often using relations with China as a distraction from unpopular domestic reforms. China for its part has already responded to this change in Japanese leadership, quickly declaring that Abe’s initiative in having peaceful and friendly relations withBeijing would stay on track. BeijingWashington and Seoul are all observing closely how a Fukuda era would pan out. Washington especially is hoping that US-Japan alliance will remain strong under his charge.

Barely has Fukuda settled down to work and there are already reactions on the streets to his political victory. Some people in Tokyo expressed optimism that Yasuo Fukuda will bring much-needed stability to the government after his sweeping victory Sunday in the Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election — while others were skeptical that the LDP can recover from the recent scandals besetting its lawmakers. Fukuda faces an uphill battle in convincing the public of LDP’s effective leadership. Upset by Abe's abrupt resignation and his Cabinet members' scandals, some people said they expect little from Fukuda and the LDP-led government.

Others wonder if his privileged background, coming from a powerful politically-connected family and a background of working in big industries would endear him to the Japanese working class. Mr Fukuda was a businessman in an oil company for 17 years before he was roped into politics by his father at age 40.

To convince a skeptical public of his leadership, Fukuda pledges stability and revitalization of the ruling LDP, which is facing its worst crisis in decades after being led by the inexperienced Shinzo Abe. Mr Fukuda said: 'I want to revitalise the LDP so that it can regain the trust of the people and implement policies steadily.' 'I am told that I stand for a sense of stability, and people think that I would not do anything rash,' he said at his first press conference.

There are also early indications of challenges to Fukuda’s leadership. While Fukuda’s victory was predicted, the big surprise was the strong showing of his sole rival, former foreign minister Taro Aso, who garnered 37 per cent of the total votes. The result caused such a stir in the auditorium where the election was held that LDP members almost forgot to applaud the winner. With only a small faction has of 15 members, Mr Aso managed to garner 133 votes out of a total of 387 votes from LDP lawmakers. This leaves some leeway for the hawkish Aso to give another shot at the LDP presidency in future. (24 September 2007)


Fukuda defeats Aso in LDP presidential race (Asahi, 24 September 2007)

Fukuda pledges stability as Japan's new leader (Straits Times, 24 September 2007)

Fukuda elected LDP chief, set to be Japan's new prime minister (Japan Times, 23 September 2007)

Japan's ruling party names Fukuda as PM (Channelnewsasia, 23 September 2007)

Fukuda wins LDP presidential election (Asahi, 23 September 2007)