TOKYO, August 1 – Japan’s embattled Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was set to reshuffle his cabinet Friday in a last-ditch bid to revive waning public support as elections loom against a rising opposition.
The popularity of the 72-year-old centrist, once seen as a pair of safe hands, has plunged since he took over in September last year, leading to calls that he should surround himself with new faces.
Japanese media said Fukuda would likely keep in place his top aide, Nobutaka Machimura, but bring his former rival Taro Aso back from the political wilderness as secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Through the reshuffle, Fukuda "wants to pursue policies that focus on people’s daily lives," said Machimura, who as chief cabinet secretary is the number two in the government and its spokesman.
Fukuda is scheduled to hold a news conference at 9:00 pm (1200 GMT) to discuss his appointments.
The premier has little taste for dramatic surprises and left in place 15 of the 17 ministers from his disgraced predecessor Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, although he swapped some portfolios.
That decision was aimed at minimising political chaos after Abe’s sudden resignation following a string of scandals in his cabinet. Abe then checked himself into hospital for stress.
Fukuda is known for moderate views within the conservative LDP. He has championed efforts to repair often strained relations with giant neighbour China and is due to head next week to Beijing for the Olympics.
But public approval of Fukuda’s cabinet nosedived within months of taking over largely due to a backlash over a new medical plan that raises costs for many elderly people.
Fukuda received little boost to his popularity from hosting the summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers last month, with the cabinet’s approval rating still hovering just over 20 percent.
The opposition, which controls one house of parliament, has accused Fukuda of having no clear policy direction and has pushed the premier to dissolve the lower house for snap general elections.
Analysts said the reshuffle showed that Fukuda was serious about trying to reverse course rather than immediately call a general election, which is not due until September next year.
"Without a reshuffle, the administration would only keep losing strength. This conveys the message that Fukuda will stay in his job and try to win public support," said Sadafumi Kawato, a professor of politics at Tohoku University.
"Even some LDP members have been saying that it’s better to hold snap elections as early as possible because they don’t think they can win elections with Fukuda in the prime minister’s post," he said.
However, the expected appointment of Aso as the LDP’s secretary general could send a signal that Fukuda is prepared to step down after the next election, analysts said.
Aso, a flamboyant conservative, has run for premier three times and had openly pushed for the LDP post, seen as a launching pad for the premiership.
Television reports said Bunmei Ibuki, the current LDP secretary general, would move over to head the finance ministry, where he once served as a bureaucrat.
Analysts said the reshuffle was also aimed at reassuring coalition partner New Komeito, Japan’s third largest party, to stay with the LDP.
New Komeito, which derives support through ties with a major Buddhist movement, gives the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in the lower house that lets it override the opposition-led upper house.
Fukuda met Friday with New Komeito’s head, Akihiro Ota, who said they had discussed "reforms that put a stress on consumers and ordinary people as well as the importance of revitalising the economy."