Asos advent

Published : Oct 24, 2008 00:00 IST

Japans new Prime Minister Taro Aso, who succeeds two lacklustre leaders, has a chance to shine by contrast.

in Singapore

THE emergence of Taro Aso as Prime Minister is projected as the best thing that could have happened to Japan since the high-profile ascendance and popular rule of the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi until two years ago.

Surely, no Japanese leader or opinion-maker is equating Aso with Koizumi, who, despite his controversial image in some key neighbouring countries such as China and South Korea, strode the Tokyo scene like a colossus for five years. Moreover, it was Koizumis voluntary move to quit centre stage when he was still at the zenith of his political career that has affected the style and substance of Japans politics. And, since the end of his reform era, the country has seen two Prime Ministers, including one who was born after its traumatic defeat in the Second World War. During this brief post-Koizumi period, the reform mantra has survived, more as a pale shadow of the original idea and less as a dynamic agenda.

In these circumstances, Asos advent, or rise as some pundits see it, has offered him a chance to shine by contrast, especially because of the lacklustre performances of both his immediate predecessors. For all this potential political hype, though, it is not as if he has, despite his high political pedigree, registered a meteoric rise to power. His election as Prime Minister by a divided Diet (Parliament) on September 24 followed his fourth, and finally successful, bid to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) two days earlier.

It was under Koizumis political wing that Aso first began carving out a niche for himself. However, he is not known to exude the same passion and vigour as his mentor for sweeping structural reforms in Japans political domain, fossilised under a United States-imposed pacifist Constitution after the Second Wold War. Nor is Aso credited with a single-minded zeal for reforms in the capitalist economic sphere, where Japans genius for the states role, which has spawned the politics of patronage, is widely debated.

There is no dispute, therefore, about his not being a Koizumi-style leader. But, not much is known about the Potential Aso not just the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, whose doctrine still defines some key aspects of Japans foreign and domestic policies. As an early leader of post-imperial Japan, Yoshida firmly placed the country in a geostrategic orbit around the U.S. despite its nuclear-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of the War. This policy, designed to create political space for the reconstruction of a devastated industrial economy, did lead to Japans economic miracle in the second half of the 20th century.

Japans challenges, towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century, centre on two basic issues the search for a definitive national identity as a post-imperial power, and the countrys economic competitiveness as also a matching political profile in Chinas neighbourhood. Koizumi initiated the process of giving Japan a sense of national purpose as an independent-minded friend and ally of the U.S. Towards that objective, he placed on the national agenda a rather sensitive issue of gradually amending or revising or even re-casting the U.S.-dictated Constitution. This did set off alarm bells across much of East Asia, especially China, over concerns about a possible revival of Japanese militarism. And, in the economic field, his flagship project of privatisation of the postal service, and its centrepiece of a mammoth savings bank, was seen as a Herculean effort. However, he accomplished the task on the basis of a massive political mandate from the people; and it is this mandate that the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, continued to command at the time of Asos election as Prime Minister.

However, the circumstances of this election by the Diet symbolise the fragility of the LDPs political fortunes in the post-Koizumi period. During the short reign of Shinzo Abe, who succeeded Koizumi, the LDP lost control of the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of the Diet, in the election of July 2007 to that body. The triumph of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in that election signalled the beginning of the end of Abes term. Finally, citing the difficulties of overcoming challenges from the DPJ on a range of issues, including Official Japans pro-U.S. leanings, Abe bowed out of office in September 2007. His failure, despite a considerable political lineage and the status of being a leader of the first post-imperial generation, brought the veteran Yasuo Fukuda to the hot seat of Prime Minister.

On balance, Fukuda did manage to ward off the kind of ministerial scandals over allegations of corrupt practices that blotted Abes copybook of leadership. As for the ultra-sensitive issue of Official Japans ties with the U.S., Fukuda first beat a retreat, in the face of a political onslaught from the DPJ, and later bewildered it with a creative piece of legislative manoeuvre.

The key issue at stake was the renewal of Japans refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean region in support of the U.S.-led forces operating in the Afghan theatre of the so-called global war on terror. Special-measure laws, first ingeniously envisioned by Koizumi as being compatible with the spirit of the pacifist Constitution, provided the legal cover for the non-lethal refuelling mission. With the DPJ citing the significant opposition to the U.S. among Japanese people and thereby resisting any renewal of the refuelling mission, Fukuda first allowed it to lapse in late 2007. However, when the DPJ-controlled House of Councillors voted down a renewal Bill early this year, he successfully piloted the same legislation for a second time in the more powerful House of Representatives. With that rarely adopted strategy, he revived the pro-U.S. operation of the non-combat kind.

Fukudas problems, though, were not limited to such foreign policy tussles with the DPJ, which, under Ichiro Ozawa, has been making a determined bid to unseat the well-entrenched LDP from power. On the domestic front, the decelerating economy became a big drag for the Fukuda administration. Painful phases of slow-down of the Japanese economy, which may remain the worlds second largest one for just some more time, have been frequent in the past two decades. However, the Japanese people see their woes magnified against the neighbouring landscape of China, whose economy is seen to zoom up unfailingly at the speed of space rockets.

Finally, finding himself unable to put the Japanese economy back on course, in the context of recent global upsurge in the prices of fuel and other crises, Fukuda announced on September 1 that he would quit office. Throughout his short tenure of one year until September 24, he was also haunted by persistently poor public opinion ratings.

Asos rise as Prime Minister in these circumstances was marked by much drama. To begin with, he had to contend with four other contestants for the post of party president. Given that the LDP has controlled the levers of national power for well over 50 years, except for a brief interlude of less than a year, the leader of this party has become Prime Minister time and again. In the party presidential poll in Tokyo on September 22, Aso won convincingly, with all his opponents trailing far behind. They included Yuriko Koike, the first female candidate for this post in Japans contemporary history. In addition to a decisive majority of LDP parliamentarians, an overwhelming proportion of the partys prefectural representatives rooted for him.

All this did not, however, translate into a smooth sailing in the Diet, the constitutional forum for the election of a Prime Minister. The opposition-controlled House of Councillors chose Ozawa and not Aso for the post in a run-off vote that was necessitated by the split result of the main balloting. In a parallel exercise, the powerful House of Representatives endorsed Aso as Prime Minister, handing him a landslide victory. This set the stage for a session of the joint committee of the two Houses, but the panel failed to reconcile the different results and did not name an agreed winner. In the event, Aso was deemed as the choice of the entire Diet, under the constitutional provision that validates the choice of the Representatives over that of the Councillors in case of a stalemate.

Fukuda, too, had to endure a similar power struggle in the Diet before becoming Prime Minister last year. However, the 68-year-old Asos challenges are compounded by the fact that he will have to face the electorate by September next year at the latest in the normal course.

In fact, as this report is written, speculation is rife in Japanese political circles that Aso may opt for snap general elections soon. He intends to do so after seeking a supplementary budget for the current fiscal year to meet the crisis brought about by global prices of food and fuel.

On the domestic turf, his image is shaped as much by his avid interest in comics and his reputation as a former Olympian sharp-shooter as by his political lineage. An obvious priority in his national agenda is to fix the ailing economy. In a country still dominated by political shoguns or factional chiefs, despite Koizumis exceptional term as a leader who could rise above this constraint, Asos work is cut out.

The challenges on the foreign policy front are no less formidable. Tokyos ties with China plummeted under Koizumi, with Beijing viewing his nationalism as a smokescreen for the potential revival of Japanese militarism. Abe and Fukuda sought to place Japans ties with China on a more even keel. The trust deficit in their ties may not be easy to erase, but a big initiative was signified by Fukudas accord with Chinese President Hu Jintao in May for viewing the two countries as partners and not as threats to each other.

Aso is known to carry a foreign policy baggage of China-scepticism, which may now be put to the test. While the U.S. looms in larger-than-life proportions in his world view, he had, as Foreign Minister earlier, recognised India as being central to his dream of an arc of freedom and prosperity. With Japan, under Fukuda, having sailed with the U.S. in granting India an exceptional status in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, this aspect of Tokyo-New Delhi engagement can acquire a new meaning for Aso.

A long-term challenge for him and other Japanese leaders is to think out of the box of the discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and work towards a new global nuclear order. Right now, Japan views the U.S. as a unique nuclear power and condemns in others the bomb in the mind syndrome, which Jonathan Schell and other campaigners against nuclear weapons have identified in regard to all those possessing or wishing to acquire them.

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