Japanese PM seeks longevity with fast resignations

Japanese PM seeks longevity with fast resignations

With the landslide victory in the House of Representatives election held at the end of last year and a 15-year high in stock prices, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to be doing well. However, with a series of Cabinet ministers resigning due to irregularities in political funds, he could see himself standing on shakier ground. How will Abe, who is aiming for a long-term administration, overcome this difficult situation? This series looks at the administration's power structure, where strength and precariousness coexist. This is the first instalment in the series.

A little after 5 p.m. on Feb. 23, the Imperial Household Agency received an urgent phone call from a government official.

"Farm minister Koya Nishikawa is resigning. Could an attestation ceremony for his successor be held later tonight or tomorrow morning?"

Cabinet member attestation is one of the constitutional functions of the Emperor. Attestation ceremonies are usually held in the Matsu-no-Ma State Room of the Imperial Palace, but as there was not enough time for preparations that day, it was held at the Emperor's residence.

At first, Abe urged Nishikawa to reconsider, saying: "There are no illegalities. If you resign, we'll be in trouble." But the farm minister remained steadfast in his resolve to step down, and on Feb. 20, Abe told Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to put an early end to the drama and started personal background checks on a likely candidate to succeed Nishikawa. Requiring less than two hours to complete the transition, the speedy handling even led a senior opposition member to say, "Frankly speaking, well done!"

Nishikawa was the third Cabinet minister to resign over irregularities within the last four months. That number becomes four if you include Akinori Eto, who declined being reappointed as defence minister. In other words, one-third of the 12 ministers appointed during the Cabinet reshuffle of last September have been replaced, which is an unusual situation.

Under the so-called divided Diet, in which the opposition camp controlled the House of Councillors, there were a number of many cases in which the opposition demanded resignations of Cabinet members, refused to participate in deliberations and forced resignations. Yet even under the current "one strong, many weak" structure, the Abe administration has ministers in question resign before calls for resignation can grow in order to minimise damage to his administration. This has become one trait of "Abe's style of risk management," according to a high-ranking government official.

Things took a bad turn last October when Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi resigned and then Justice Minister Midori Matsushima was, in effect, dismissed for distributing fans in her electoral district, making for a "double resignation." By completing both resignations at once, the administration was able to prevent the flames of the scandals from spreading.

This approach stands in contrast to that of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was able to hold political power for more than five years.

Koizumi dismissed then Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, who stood out for her unique behaviour, but the only person he drove to resignation over political funds irregularities was then Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tadamori Oshima. Koizumi effectively gave the impression of a "strong administration" by fiercely protecting ministers who had problems and minimizing changes in Cabinet ministers. He was also able to surmount difficult problems with the power of his words, such as "I'll destroy the Liberal Democratic Party."

The current prime minister, who refers to Koizumi as the "genius surfer," was quoted by a source as telling people around him that he "could never imitate Koizumi's style of creating his own wave and then riding it to the distant shore."

Abe had a bitter experience with his first Cabinet, when he lacked the gift for nipping things in the bud, allowing problems to escalate. For example, he was slow to dismiss farm minister Norihiko Akagi, who was involved in a series of scandals, which resulted in a crushing defeat in the upper house election. Before that, the worst-case scenario occurred when farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide while under fire over office expenses. These incidents are apparently reflected in his current method of promptly taking action against problems.

Abe has been able to maintain stable approval ratings through support for, and feelings of expectation toward, his "Abenomics" economic policy. However, there is no knowing if and when he could face a problem that would result in the collapse of his administration in one fell swoop should he err in dealing with something, regardless of whether it is a political funds problem.

A government source pointed out that even the landslide disaster that left 74 people dead in Hiroshima last summer "could have been a turning point for the administration."

At the time of the incident, Abe was in the middle of his summer vacation in Yamanashi Prefecture. After hearing of the first reports, he started to play golf. About an hour later, he was informed about the high number of victims and stopped playing.

He issued instructions early on and made no mistakes in dealing with the crisis, but the opposition camp seized the opportunity to criticise him.

Even those around him acknowledged he should have stopped earlier, warning that even one mistake could cost him the hearts of the people.

Poor crisis management

An example of an administration losing its influence through poor crisis management was an incident in February 2001, when a Japanese training ship, the Ehime Maru, was struck by a US nuclear submarine and sank, leaving nine people dead. Then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori suffered criticism for continuing to play golf at the time, despite hearing about the incident, later leading to his resignation.

Abe was deputy chief cabinet secretary at the time. When the incident occurred, he was involved in issuing instructions to each ministry office and making contact with the US side at the Prime Minister's Office. When the Great Hanshin Earthquake took place in January 1995, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama received first reports more than an hour later and was severely criticised that his inaction attributed to the massive scope of the damage.

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