Monday, September 1, 2008

Aso Taro's poisoned chalice

With Fukuda Yasuo's resignation, there is little question that the frontrunner to replace him (perhaps the only candidate to replace him) is Aso Taro.

Mr. Aso may regret it.

Taking the helm with the LDP in even greater shambles than it was when he ran against Mr. Fukuda in September 2007 to succeed Abe Shinzo, a Prime Minister Aso would have to rush to sort out a new cabinet lineup (or would he keep Mr. Fukuda's second?) and sort out his agenda. Provided that he can wave off demands for a general election, the autumn extraordinary session will now be starting closer to the end of September, leaving the government even less time to push its stimulus package and an extension of the MSDF mission through the Diet. The latter looks increasingly unlikely, no matter how resolutely Mr. Aso asserts that it must be done. Moreover, it is unlikely that Mr. Aso would have any more control over Komeito than Mr. Fukuda, Mr. Aso's supposed "pipeline" to Komeito notwithstanding.

In these circumstances, the pressure for a general election immediately may prove irresistible.

But Mr. Aso has finally climbed to the top of the greasy pole.

For a look at how he went from defeated party presidential candidate to prohibitive favorite to succeed Mr. Fukuda, see this post, this post, this article at the website of the Far Eastern Economic Review, and this post on Mori Yoshiro's endorsement of Mr. Aso.

There will be lots of talk in the coming days about Mr. Aso's conservatism. While undoubtedly true, it is not the most important factor in understanding how the coming months will play out. Mr. Aso's popularity is undeniable. The voting public may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and certainly won't hold his conservatism against him should he find the right way to deliver the message that under his leadership the government will be more responsive to people's hardships than under his predecessors or the DPJ. It's possible that enough voters will buy that message and return the LDP with a slim majority. While a slim majority will not "untwist" the Diet, Mr. Aso would use his popular appeal to claim it as a mandate and appeal directly to the public over the heads of "opposition forces" in the LDP and the opposition camp, a la Koizumi Junichiro.

Whether he has the deftness to pull off such a feat is one question; whether the circumstances will permit it is another. I'm dubious about the possibility of the LDP's riding out the chaos under the leadership of Mr. Aso. I think the LDP has exhausted its line of credit with the public, and will find itself cut off at election time. The public may be ready to resolve the divided Diet by delivering the lower house to the DPJ.

Expect that the first task for Mr. Aso will be buying time, trying to make the case that an election does not need to be held immediately — perhaps an argument like the government cannot afford to be distracted by an election when the economy is faltering and when urgent action is needed to address the insecurities of the people.

2 comments:

Janne Morén said...

The risk of delaying an election is of course that the more time passes the more the "new candidate" shine will wear off Aso and the more time he and his cabinet will have for missteps. Also, responsibility is a gradual thing - if he calls an election immediately he can paint himself as largely without blame for the current state of affairs. Once he has settled in as prime minister he has picked up responsibility for all problems, current and historical.

Tobias Harris said...

Janne,

I recognize that conventional wisdom says that Aso will enjoy a wave of support when he enters office, but this hardly seems like a conventional moment.

The situation is chaotic and the cabinet's popularity is trending sharply downward. Calling an election before the government has a chance to stop the bleeding is a recipe for disaster. I don't expect a new government to wait too long, but I also don't expect the first act of a new government to be dissolving the lower house and calling an election.

Given his position, I don't think anyone will buy the idea that Aso is blameless.