The abrupt resignation of Yasuo Fukuda as Japanese Prime Minister after barely a year in office does not seem to have occasioned either surprise or much regret among his people. The consensus is that Mr. Fukuda, 72, a former Chief Cabinet Secretary who had a less than 30 per cent positive rating when he announced his decision, has underperformed on virtually every front. Japan’s economy is stagnant; its foreign policy unsettled; its political system in a state of par alysis. Most Japanese seemed to have realised that the man at the helm was not up to the challenges. Nor will the suddenness of his resignation lead to much instability since he will continue to perform the duties of Prime Minister until a successor steps in. What could be demoralising is the widespread perception that Mr. Fukuda’s exit is yet another indication that Japan’s political culture is in poor health. Two Prime Ministers have come and gone in less than two years and both have left office as shattered men. This is discomfiting for a political system that Junichiro Koizumi managed with a measure of élan from 2001 to 2006. Mr. Fukuda’s eventual successor is not likely to have an easy time either. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which controls the upper house of the Diet, can continue to thwart legislation. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has relied on its two-thirds majority in the lower house to push through legislative and other measures. This situation could change drastically if the LDP’s sclerotic leadership chooses a person disliked by reform-minded legislators as successor to Mr. Fukuda.
The Japanese government has brushed aside the opposition’s call for an early election. Some analysts think that the LDP will desperately seek to consolidate under a new Prime Minister before going for a fresh mandate. In that case, elections will be held at the due time in late 2009. There are also those who believe that Mr. Fukuda’s successor, if adventurous, may opt for the opposite course and call for an early vote. The logic in this line of thinking is that the new Prime Minister can try and convert any upswing in the public mood consequent on his appointment into a worthwhile mandate. Much, of course, will depend on the personality of the next LDP leader. Right now, the wind seems to be blowing in the direction of the party’s secretary-general and former Foreign Minister, Taro Aso. He has the support of the LDP’s old guard and is known to be more popular than Mr. Fukuda. An imponderable factor in all this is the role Mr. Koizumi, still regarded as a powerhouse of a politician, might seek to play in the circumstances of the day.