Tokyo Notes

Kan’s Last Cabinet Reshuffle?

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Tokyo Notes

Kan’s Last Cabinet Reshuffle?

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has just reshuffled his cabinet. Will it be the last chance he gets?

Prime Minister Naoto Kan reshuffled his cabinet Friday afternoon, replacing two censured members and bringing in a former heavyweight of the main opposition party known for his strong views on fiscal consolidation. The move reflects Kan’s need to unjam the legislative gridlock he faces in parliament and re-establish momentum for his party if he’s to survive as premier.

While the main portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and finance remain unchanged, by the time Kan announced his new cabinet, the main 'surprise' appointments had already been widely reported by domestic media. These were the selection of Yukio Edano as Chief Cabinet Secretary and newly independent Kaoru Yosano as Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy.

Edano, a former secretary general of Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan, is another opponent of controversial party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, so his replacement of the like-minded Yoshito Sengoku maintains the balance of anti-Ozawa forces in the cabinet. The loss of Kan’s right-hand man Sengoku, who will take the role of acting head of the party, is still a blow to Kan. But the prospect of a standoff in the Diet over Sengoku and outgoing Transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi, who were both censured late last year, seems to have forced Kan’s hand.

Edano won’t be a popular choice among Ozawaites in the DPJ, nor among those who apportion some of the blame to Edano for last year’s poor showing by the party in the upper house election when he was secretary general. This election defeat tarnished Edano’s rising star status, embellished during his stint as head slayer of wasteful public works projects. At 46, he's also relatively young for a position typically held by a seasoned veteran with decades of experience fielding awkward questions.

But the appointment of veteran lawmaker Yosano is even more of a gamble. It's true that Yosano is on the same page as Kan on the need for raising the consumption tax to help restore the nation's finances. Also, at the end of last year, he tried to forge an alliance between the DPJ and the Sunrise Party of Japan, which Yosano helped found last year. But when it came to decision time, he found none of his fellow party members standing behind him. Yosano left the party yesterday, heralding his appointment to the cabinet as an independent.

On paper, it's a brilliant idea. It gives the cabinet a consensus-focused feel. As a former leadership contender of the Liberal Democratic Party and with close ties to New Komeito, the third biggest party in the lower house, Yosano could provide a crucial bridge for building consensus among parties in the Diet for passing the budget, raising the consumption tax and tackling social security, and for passing other legislation in the interests of making progress in these important areas. If achieved, this would be a major coup for Kan.

But the reality is likely to be very different. Having bolted from the LDP and the Sunrise Party, Yosano may well find it more difficult to use those connections to forge consensus for progress for the nation's benefit. The LDP, in particular, seems hell-bent on forcing a general election above all else (as the DPJ was itself in the past), regardless of what constructive measures could be implemented in the meantime.

The appointment of Yosano will also sit uncomfortably with DPJ members unhappy at Yosano's fierce criticism of the DPJ in the past.

One of the more curious aspects of the new cabinet line-up, as pointed out in media reports, is that Yosano will replace Banri Kaieda, the very man he fought against and lost to in the lower house election for Tokyo District No. 1. Yosano kept his place in the Diet via the proportional representation list. In the new cabinet, Kaieda will take the post of trade and economy minister, so these erstwhile foes will have to work together if the progress so desperately needed by Kan is to be made.