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Observations on political maneuvering behind cabinet reshuffle

Former Regional Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba


Ishiba’s departure from the cabinet when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conducted his reshuffle on Aug. 3 was regarded by Ishiba and his supporters to be the “perfect timing” for him to leave and start focusing on preparing to become the next Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president, i.e. the next prime minister.


Ishiba had been upset with Abe’s sudden creation of the new position of minister for the dynamic engagement of all citizens last October, which overlaps with his job and upstages his regional revitalization projects. A mid-ranking Diet member from the Ishiba faction says that with the LDP being divided in the recent Tokyo gubernatorial election and even threatening to punish supporters of Governor Yuriko Koike, the party now has a negative image. Consequently, now is the right time for Ishiba to present himself as a credible alternative by messaging from outside the cabinet.


Ishiba is launching a serious campaign to seize the premiership assisted by four policy experts:


  • House of Representatives member Ken Saito, a former bureaucrat and expert on trade policy;
  • Lower House member Masaaki Taira, former Tokyo Junior Chamber (JC) president, advising him on growth strategy; 
  • Lower House member Ryosei Akazawa, a former bureaucrat who is knowledgeable about fortification of national territory and other issues; 
  • Lower House member Yoshihisa Furukawa, a former bureaucrat who is in charge of financial policy. 


Ishiba is planning on touring the nation’s regions intensively, not only for policy purposes, but also to talk to rank-and-file party members, which is meant to win him votes in a presidential race. He is even rumored to be planning a visit to China. Ishiba will also use social media extensively to spread his views on the Abe administration’s policies.


Opinion on Ishiba is divided in the administration. A Kantei official close to Abe asserts, “We manipulated him into declining offers of ministerial positions, so he will lose influence. That will be his end.”


On the other hand, a senior LDP official close to Abe says: “It is possible that he may further expand his support among local party members. He has good relations with Tokyo Governor Koike, who supported him in the last presidential election. He may also team up with Shinjiro Koizumi and others who stand for policies similar to his and trigger a chemical reaction in the party.”


Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa


According to rumors in Nagata-cho, Tamayo Marukawa was named the Olympic minister to serve as a “buffer” between Tokyo Governor Koike and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, chair of the Olympic organizing committee, who allegedly “hate each other.”


On the other hand, an LDP faction leader offers the analysis that this appointment is actually aimed at “destroying” Koike. He says that if Marukawa succeeds in mediating between Koike and Mori, the government will be able to grab the initiative in organizing the Tokyo Olympics, and Marukawa will steal the spotlight from Koike as a female governor.


Koike reportedly sees Marukawa as an “assassin” rather than a “buffer.” One of her close aides has indicated a “fighting mode.” This aide said, “Ms. Marukawa must not forget that Tokyo is the host of the Olympics,” and warned that Tokyo’s share in the construction cost and other expenditures will be cut back as much as possible and Marukawa (the national government) will be made to foot the bill.


LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai


Nikai has been displaying his well-known “shrewdness” since taking up his job. As soon as he assumed his position, he declared that it was “unnecessary” to punish Koike, who defied the party and ran as an independent in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, and lawmakers who supported her, despite the LDP’s previous warning.


Apparently, this was precisely why Abe appointed him as secretary general – to take advantage of his “versatile strong arm.”


A senior LDP official points out, “The constitutional revision process requires work at the Diet and party levels and not at the government level. (Nikai) will be able to make use of his strong contacts in the Komeito, which is hesitant about revising Article 9 of the Constitution, and his extensive connections with the opposition to speed up discussions and negotiations in the Commissions on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet.”


Nikai has also been positive about extending Abe’s term as LDP president for some time now, which is apparently in anticipation of the prolonged process of constitutional revision. This has triggered criticism in the LDP, but a veteran lawmaker close to Nikai explains, “If this issue comes up shortly before the president’s term expires, there will be chaos in the fight to succeed him. Nikai’s style is to do this quickly to minimize the risk.”


However, a close aide to Abe is also wary of Nikai because “Mr. Nikai is a realist, so if the Abe administration’s support rating drops, he may support someone else and stab Prime Minister Abe in the back.”


From the above, it appears that Abe’s appointments have produced the following situation: Ishiba may build up his power for the next LDP presidential election; Marukawa’s appointment meant to weaken the “Koike boom” may instead set fire to Koike’s fighting spirit; and Nikai’s strong arm may also come with risks. Abe’s cabinet reshuffle is likely to turn out to be a “double-edged sword.” (Summary)

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