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In trying to create stronger leadership, Japan's prime minister may have met his match

In trying to create stronger leadership, Japan's prime minister may have met his match

One of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first vows after taking office was to turn his administration into a more formidable operation, with an array of advisers patterned after the U.S. White House. After just four months, his pet plan is already in trouble.
And so is he.
In an attempt to focus power within his own circle, Abe established five advisory posts shortly after assuming office last September and announced the creation of a Japanese security council modeled on the National Security Council in the United States.
It was a bold plan, aimed at making Japan a more effective global player and, in the process, shifting at least some of the power away from the country's deeply entrenched bureaucrats.
At first, Abe had reason to be optimistic.
Stock prices surged after his election, and he rose to power with the backing of the biggest faction within the ruling party. The public was supportive _ his approval ratings started out at 65 percent _ and predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had repeatedly demonstrated that calls for reform sounded a sympathetic note with the voters.
"I will prepare a framework where the Prime Minister's Office and the White House can be in constant communication," he said in his first policy speech, adding that he intended to significantly strengthen his office to do that.
But Abe has since taken a big fall.
Hit by scandals in his Cabinet, support for Abe has eroded steadily since he took office. It dipped below 40 percent this week, according to a poll by the Asahi newspaper, one of Japan's largest, a drop of 8 percentage points from the month before.
Abe shrugged off the decline, telling reporters that proper politics isn't about "trying to revitalize your support rate."
He hasn't had much more luck with revitalizing his policy initiatives, however.
One of Abe's main motives for naming the special advisers and in creating the security council is to make negotiations with Washington and European governments more effective. The advisers, so the plan goes, will be able to meet with their counterparts abroad and then return and answer directly back to the prime minister.
Along those same lines, Japan's Defense Agency was boosted to full ministry status in January, potentially giving its chief greater clout not only in domestic budget negotiations, but also in talks with Washington, which is important now because the two countries are engaged in the broadest realignment of the 50,000 U.S. troops based in Japan in decades.
But an increased role for hand-picked advisers would also impinge on territory claimed long ago by Japan's powerful bureaucrats. Unlike the U.S. system, Japanese bureaucrats are little affected by changes in administrations and see themselves as largely apart from _ and often superior to _ the Cabinet ministers whom they ostensibly serve.
Their opposition, and the lack of public support, is suffocating Abe's plan.
According to media reports, legislation to give broader powers to Abe's advisers has been shelved, and senior officials in Abe's administration have indicated they may have already wilted on the vine. A report on the viability of the council is due out next month, and, amid intense opposition, the bill to create it may not be taken up during the current session of parliament, which ends in June.
But with the scandals and Abe's other major initiative, a revision of Japan's constitution, likely to eat up most of the deliberations, the prognosis for Abe's administrative revamp look dim.
Many analysts see a failure on this front as the true measure of Abe's strength as a leader _ and they say he isn't measuring up well.
"It's not working," said Kiichi Fujiwara, a professor at the prestigious Tokyo University and well-known political commentator. "His days may be numbered."
Fujiwara noted the creation of the Defense Ministry was a done deal before Abe came to power, and added that although Abe is a member of the ruling Liberal Democrats' biggest faction, he is not their leader. With elections coming up after parliament closes, few are willing to devote much energy to the cause celebre of an unpopular leader.
If the elections go poorly, he added, Abe could very well be under pressure to pack his bags.
"Abe has become a fascinating prime minister _ because he is very weak," Fujiwara said. "There is a power vacuum."
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Eds: Associated Press writer Kana Inagaki contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-03-05 00:08 GMT+08:00