Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Parallels between Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Abe in the Polls; Stargazing; and Lots of Footnotes on North Korea, Refueling Resumption Bill, Etc.

The Abe Cabinet’s public poll numbers* had slipped steadily since its inauguration in 2006 September until opposition outnumbered support for the first time in 2007 February. However, as the political financing scandal epidemic more or less subsided** and the ruling coalition managed to pass the budget and enact much of its legislative agenda, the Abe Cabinet’s numbers recovered in April and appeared to stabilize there. But then, the DPJ finally broke through with the 50 Million mislaid public pension accounts. The Abe Cabinet’s numbers took a huge hit, from which they never recovered. True, the DPJ’s numbers did not rise in similarly dramatic fashion, but the LDP’s numbers fell, and that’s what mattered. The pension accounts scandal devastated the ruling coalition in the July Upper House election and mortally wounded the Abe Cabinet (on life support, then clinically dead, for the last two months of its existence). Does the story sound familiar?

Some of the 15-16 December poll numbers in the latest Kyōdō Tsūshin wire service report can only be interpreted in light of the initial rage at the cavalier way in which the Prime Minister and his Chief Cabinet Secretary (charged jointly with the Health, Labor and Welfare Minister to clean up the management mess at the Social Insurance Agency) tried to brush off the latest revelations***. As the anger subsides and if nothing more occurs to further erode trust, the Fukuda Cabinet will recover a good portion of the support it dropped. But a sense of betrayal will linger in the public’s mind, bringing a new fragility to the Fukuda Cabinet. All innocence has been lost; with it, much of Mr. Fukuda’s margin of error.

What, then, are the factors that will have a major effect on the Fukuda administration’s fate?

You can forget about his 27-2829 December trip to China. There will be no surprises; the dispute over the East China Sea gas fields will be resolved, if ever, on the occasion of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan next spring****. If there is no solution available on that occasion, then Mr. Fukuda should be polite, but firm in rejecting Chinese claims.

ADD: On the other hand, if they do decide to settle it, there's no reason why they can't do it on this occasion. If they do, it will certainly be a nice feather in the Prime Minister's cap. Chinese leaders tend to gift tributaries... (20 December)

On North Korea, no meaningful progress will be made on the abductees, in the sense that no new information will surface from the North Korean side*****. This is unlikely to be a problem for Mr. Fukuda unless the Bush administration decides to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which in turn is unlikely to happen unless North Korea comes clean on its uranium enrichment program and its plutonium and plutonium bomb stockpiles******.

You can forget about the refueling resumption bill, too, which will be adopted by a supermajority override on 12 January or thereabouts. What the Kyōdō Tsūshin poll says is that the public is angry at the Prime Minister and his Ministers’ handling of the pension accounts revelations and is taking it out on the refueling bill*******. It’s not about the bill itself. In fact, pushing the bill to its ultimate conclusion will not damage Mr. Fukuda in the public eye; to the contrary, it will be somewhat helpful, as a show of decisiveness.

National security brings me to the uglier face of the defense controversy: the Moriya and Co. scandals. I’ve said before that the coalition can weather the scandal if it is limited to Yamada Yōkō but that all bets are off if indictments spread to other businesses. I should have qualified that by saying that criminal proceedings against LDP members would cause problems commensurate with the number and statuses of such politicians. I think that the Fukuda administration can even weather the singular implication of Fukushirō Nukaga, his Finance Minister. But for that, he needs to act decisively in the face of a variety of contingencies. ********.

I had thought that the tax bill would be a major theater of contention on the chess board. Now, I am not quite so sure. There is open dissent in the DPJ on the most important and problematic item among the time-limited tax measures: the ten-year old “temporary” supercharge on the gasoline tax. Specifically, it has been revealed that some road-construction-happy DPJ Diet members are circulating an open letter opposing the DPJ pledge to eliminate the supercharge and to put the remainder in the general budget, and threatening to vote against a DPJ bill to that effect. But even if the threats prove hollow and the wayward DPJ road tribe toes the party line, it is my belief that the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of both sides coming to a compromise. It is important for the Fukuda administration not to lose its nerve as the deadline approaches.

So, as far as the major issues that come to my mind are concerned, Mr. Fukuda should be able to make his way to the Hokkaidō Summit. That alone should firm up support for his Cabinet. But this will more likely than not require a certain firmness and decisiveness - a ruthlessness, actually - that his predecessor Mr. Abe was not able to muster. Can he? That is essentially the point that Tobias raises here. So, will he or won’t he? Only God knows. And if another good friend (of mine, not Mr. Fukuda) Shisaku is God, then Mr. Fukuda is as good as dead.

* AKyōdō Tsūshin report is recovered here. The graph can be compared with the one in this report on the Fukuda Cabinet. The blue and red lines trace support and opposition respectively.

** It helped that some of the negative press spilled over to the DPJ side, most notably on party leader Ichirō Ozawa and his less-than transparent real estate transactions and other political financing mysteries.

*** I posted on it here, in case anyone needs a reminder. No? Oh well.

**** My best guess is a joint development agreement that covers areas beyond both edges of the disputed waters. That way, neither side compromises its position on the dispute, while allowing development of resources that should be commercially viable only for the Chinese market. If it happens, you read it here first.

***** The Japanese side is demanding the following:

1) Account for all the abductees.
2) Return remaining survivors.
3) Punish the people responsible.

Barring regime change, it is hard to imagine these demands being fulfilled. If the North Korean claims are true, then the Japanese side is demanding that the other side prove a negative. To do so to with any measure of satisfaction, the North Korean side would have to offer a degree of transparency and access that the North Korean regime cannot provide. If, as is likely, they are lying, they still face the accounting issue. Besides, there is no way that they can admit the truth now, since they would then have to proceed to the third Japanese demand, which in turn would raise the transparency and access issue all over again.

These are non-negotiable. Agreeing to anything that does not hold out hope for fulfillment of these demands means that you are grabbing the third rail with your bare hands. So you can see why the American authorities can’t get a coherent answer when they ask the Japanese administration to tell them what it means by “progress” with regard to the prospective delisting of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

****** In the unlikely event that North Korean side does declare its nuclear stockpile, I’m sure that the Bush administration will move to delist North Korea. The Japanese authorities will acknowledge the matter gracefully; they have no choice. It will be useful to remind the Japanese public that Japanese sanctions against North Korea were first linked to the abductees issue (to the best of my knowledge) in 2006 October, when restrictions were tightened in response to the North Korean nuclear test. Thus, if there is meaningful progress toward actual destruction of the stockpile (as opposed to mere declaration), Japan will be rightfully expected to begin rolling back those sanctions. But that is a bridge that will not be reached in the foreseeable future.

******* It is instructive that the Yomiuri poll, taken only a week before the Kyōdō Tsūshin poll, showed only a slight decline in support numbers for the refueling resumption bill. Some of the support must be casual and more a vote of overall confidence than an expression of a preference for that particular policy objective. I would rephrase this accordingly if I were to write it now.

******** Specifically, Mr. Fukuda needs a color-coded contingency plan with a clear red line beyond which he will dismiss Mr. Nukaga.

No comments: