TOKYO -- In a desperate attempt to jump-start the ruling party's fortunes after a recent electoral drubbing, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to announce a reshuffle of his Cabinet next week.
But it's going to take more than that if he wants to breathe life into his premiership.
Last month, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost its majority in the House of Councilors, which is now led by a member for the opposition for the first time in 50 years. The loss was hardly a surprise -- the government's poll numbers had been on the slide almost since the Cabinet was inaugurated last September. But the scale of the defeat was still devastating for the party, and will make it considerably harder for it to push through legislation the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) opposes.
That change is needed in the Cabinet is not in doubt -- the government has been rocked by a series of verbal gaffes, mishaps and the suicide of a minister suspected of being involved in bid-rigging of construction projects.
But the more fundamental problem for the government seems to be that it is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Japanese.
Polls have consistently shown voters are concerned about growing income inequality, the nation's contracting population and the implications this has for the country's social security system. These concerns were no doubt compounded by a fiasco over pension management that came to light earlier this year in which up to 50 million pension records were mishandled. This matters in a country where one in five people are 65 or older -- the highest proportion of any developed country.
It was a lack of faith in the pension system that exit polls showed gave the DPJ a significant boost on election day, with one survey showing the DPJ picking up about half the votes of people who didn't trust the system, compared with only about 15 percent for the LDP.
Yet all the LDP seemed able to offer was Abe's vague vision of what he calls a "beautiful Japan." Abe has tirelessly trotted out the phrase since he was selected to lead the party, but has struggled to grasp that voters need more than a catchphrase. While he may have been content when launching his party's manifesto by calling for "building a beautiful country," "working toward a more beautiful life and society," "building more beautiful towns" and "bringing this beauty to the world," the public wanted to know more about how exactly this might be achieved, and how it was related to their day-to-day, bread and butter economic concerns.
Yet on key issues such as how to reverse -- or at least stabilize -- the
population decline, the LDP had little to offer in terms of specific proposals. Indeed, it at times seemed to settle on a tactic of simply refusing to talk about, or postponing, some of the difficult decisions facing the country, such as whether and how far to raise the consumption tax rate, something even many within the LDP accept will have to happen soon.
Abe has failed to recognize that the right to a "just trust me" approach needs to be earned through government competence, something his Cabinet has too often been lacking. The problem is that Abe does not seemed to have recognized that this trust is not there, and even if he has, he has not shown any grasp of how to establish it.
This aura of detachment, again in evidence with his insistence just after his electoral thrashing that he still has a mandate for his policies, has not been helped by the fact that he surrounded himself with close friends and supporters on assuming office, and has apparently placed loyalty above all else. Despite a health minister referring to women as birthing machines, an agriculture minister embroiled in a corruption investigation and his successor being accused of padding expenses, he refused to sack any of his errant ministers ahead of the upper house poll.
Abe should take note that on one issue where he has directly addressed public concern -- namely the country's relationship with China, which deteriorated dramatically under his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi -- there was actually an uptick in his poll numbers, following the Chinese premier's historic visit to Tokyo in April.
But in Abe's Cabinet, loyalty seemingly trumps all else, a trend that looks likely to continue with gaffe-prone Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who saw fit to crack a joke at the expense of Alzheimer's sufferers on the campaign trail, rumored to be the likely next secretary general of the LDP -- the party's No. 2 position.
The country is already looking ahead to the more important House of Representatives elections, where the LDP still holds a commanding majority. But if Abe wants to avoid anything like a repeat of last month's performance, he needs to recognize that loyalty and a vision are no substitute for competence.
Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and senior editor with the Center for International Relations.
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