Japan's new PM, Yasuo Fukuda

Just took office last week. What should we expect of him? Is he a good guy? Where does he stand on the great issues of the day? Will there be much, if any, of a break with past Japanese policies?

He’s generally considered as rather centrist. Some members of the ruling party, the LDP, were initially worried that he might cause a return to the “old” LDP, versus that of former premier Koizumi. However, in his initial address he made liberal use of the word “reform”, a direct reference to the political reforms of Koizumi.

He is also mostly known for favouring friendly relationship with Asian neighbours. He is opposed, for instance, to visiting the Yasukuni Shrine on the grounds that no good can come out of pissing off your neighbours. In the past, he has been a member of committees trying to come up with a plan for a secular, non-controversial war memorial.

Towards North Korea, and the repatriation of abductees, he favours a somewhat softer line than other members of the LDP, based more on dialogue than sanctions.

While he is often described as belonging to the pro-Asia wing, versus pro-America politicians, he is not necessarily opposed to extending the mission of the Japanese Navy in the Indian Ocean, where they are providing fuel to American warships. However, since the opposition is opposed to extensions, and this is one of the biggest political battles to come.

Economically, he appears somewhat closer to Koizumi than his predecessor Abe. He aims for a budgetary surplus by 2011 and favours structural reforms to achieve this, rather than counting on increased revenue from an improved national economy, like Abe.

However, the LDP has lost the Upper House to the Democratic Party, and their standings in the polls is still not so good, although support spiked a little after Abe’s resignation. Many people expect early Lower House election, which might see DP leader Ozawa as new Prime Minister if Fukuda cannot appease an electorate tired with growing social differences (rich/poor, urban/rural) and dismal handling of their pensions.

For a significant number of people, Ozawa’s politics, centered more on social problems than foreign policy is more relevant than the LDP’s.

It’s really late here, so this may not be the most orderly of a discussion. With my apologies, here are some thoughts.

It’s a mixed message so far. He won the office with the help of a number of the big boys and rewarded them with cabinet selections, which doesn’t seem bad, but the problem is that this is a throwback to the old LDP politics of divvying out cabinet positions along faction lines. Senior politicians expect to receive a cabinet position as some point, and have it for 6 months or a year, just so that they can be called the former minister of whatever.

The widely popular Koizumi did not appoint cabinet members along faction lines, which was part of the “reform” movement, for which he has received mixed reviews. Abe followed suit, but Fukuda has reverted back to old school politics on this part.

A Japanese newspaper analysis described Abe as a perfect example of the Peter principle, and he proved himself incapable of handling the various scandals which is ministers got themselves into as well as the national pension mess, as Jovan mentions. The public’s ire gave Ozawa’s DP the victory in the upper house, which now forces the LDP to have to work harder at passing bills and allows closer inspection of various problems, much as losing the midterm elections has hurt Bush.

While Fukuda won the post, he faced a strong challenge from Aso, a former high level official in Abe’s government. Aso refused a cabinet position and seems to have positioned himself to wait for the next opportunity to challenge for the top position in the LDP and if they maintain their lead in the lower house, the post of PM. Aso has his critics as well, so that isn’t a slam dunk, but it’s another thorn in Fukuda’s side.

There isn’t much fundamental difference with the LDP and the DP, which is mostly former LDP members. Ozawa was a chief lieutenant to Kanemaru, one of the former “money is politics” gang of the LDP, and only bolted when his rival Obuchi inherited Kanemaru’s throne. Ozawa has faced considerable bad press as a kingmaker and only recently has he come out as the face of the DP. A brilliant strategist, it looks like he’s finally showing more charisma these days.