Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Plus ça change...

There appears to be little doubt that on Thursday Aso Taro will announce a new set of economic measures — and will also announce that he will not schedule an election for the later part of November. Yomiuri reports that Oshima Tadanori, the LDP's parliamentary affairs chairman, has voiced his disagreement with the prime minister's intention to postpone an election, arguing that delaying will make the opposition less willing to cooperate with the government on its agenda. Nikai Toshihiro, METI minister, and Amari Akira, administrative reform minister, have sided with the prime minister, citing the urgency of the global financial crisis.

"Not before the end of November" probably also means not before the end of this year. Asahi speculates that the next possible dates are at year's end after the budget compiliation for the next fiscal year, in January at the start of the next regular session of the Diet, or April, after the passage of the budget. Yamamoto Ichita, however, suggests that delaying now means that it is likely that Mr. Aso will delay until September 2009. I'm with him. Barring an unlikely uptick in Japan's economic fortunes (or in the LDP's standing in public opinion polls), I see no reason why the prime minister would chance an election unless he had no other choice, as will be the case in September.

An Asahi poll suggests that the public is not in a hurry to vote. In a dramatic reversal, 57% of respondents (up from 33%) think that an election is not urgently necessary. The poll contains some less-than-good news for the prime minister, however. It lends support to the idea that the government may be pushing on a string when it comes to building public support with its economic stimulus plans. Respondents were nearly divided on the value of the government's stimulus package, with 40% approving and 41% disapproving. Perhaps the next package will tip the balance, but the government's support may depend on which pages of the newspaper citizens read: are they swayed more by the relentless string of bad news on the financial pages or the promises of stimulus to come on the politics page?

Regardless of how the government will fare in the court of public opinion, the DPJ is already repositioning itself to respond to the delay (beyond calling Mr. Aso a chicken). While Okada Katsuya, the DPJ president who led the party into the last general election, doesn't want to believe that Mr. Aso means what he says, the DPJ appears to be taking Mr. Aso at his word. The response? For now, backing off on a promise not to hold up the government's new bill authorizing the MSDF refueling mission in the upper house. The upper house foreign affairs committee was supposed to vote on the bill Tuesday, but the DPJ's upper house affairs chairman denied an LDP request for a vote. The rejection may be part of a strategic decision by the DPJ to back away from cooperation now that the government is signalling that it will a delay an election.

It is unlikely that the DPJ will uniformly oppose the government, seeing as how it has little to gain from obstructing the government's efforts to respond to the crisis. (At least I hope it will see that there is little sense in being wholly uncooperative — the DPJ is currently mulling its response to the government's plan for shoring up troubled financial institutions.)

In short, the political system is back to where it was when Fukuda Yasuo decided to depart. The DPJ is hungry for an election, the LDP sees no reason to hurry given external events. The DPJ will cooperate with the government on an ad hoc basis, the LDP will paint the DPJ as putting politics before country.

Expect another ten months of this.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Aso pushes back

Prime Minister Aso, holding a press conference in Beijing where he is attending the annual Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM), suggested that in the midst of the current crisis, he will be prioritizing Japan's international role over the "domestic political situation."

The press interpretation of this remark is that Mr. Aso was signaling that he will not call an election for the latter half of November. He is still scheduled to make an announcement regarding election timing by month's end, but it appears unlikely that the prime minister will call for an election by the end of November.

Of course, by Japan's international role, Mr. Aso actually meant domestic stimulus in the hope of replacing vanishing foreign demand for Japanese products with more robust domestic consumer spending. Naturally the means by which to encourage greater domestic consumption have nothing to do with the "domestic political situation" and the LDP's electoral prospects...

The LDP and its partner Komeito are, according to Mainichi, divided over whether to hold an election within the year. Komeito actually used the F-word ("Fukuda") to argue that Mr. Aso should not delay an election, suggesting that if Mr. Aso tarries, the DPJ will become uncooperative yet again, rendering the Aso government a premature lame duck, like the former prime minister. (Apparently Komeito foresees that an election will "untwist" the Diet. Is that because Komeito thinks the LDP is bound to lose its majority?) Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi, meanwhile, suggested that it would be irresponsible for the government to call an election in the midst of the current crisis.

What, I wonder, do the LDP's backbenchers make of this? At this point will waiting until the spring or next September make any difference in their electoral prospects? Is it reasonable for the LDP to expect that the economy will look any better in the new year, new stimulus package or no new stimulus package? Does any expect that the Aso government will finally find a way to stimulate sluggish domestic demand in the midst of a crisis that seems to be encouraging anything but consumption? The Bank of Japan has already revised its growth expectations for the 2009 fiscal year down to zero.

MTC suggested Friday that the government could use talk of a future consumption tax increase to encourage more spending in the near term. Maybe, but such suggestions could simply leave citizens outraged and put them in even more of a hanging mood as regards the LDP. For a backbencher, the delay simply means more scare campaign funds spent idling in the non-campaign campaign. Given that the LDP's prospects are unlikely to have improved by the spring, it's probably just as well (from the backbencher's perspective) that the party opt for an election sooner rather than later. Holding an election will at least clarify the muddied political situation.

Of course, from the perspective of Mr. Aso and his cronies, delaying is entirely in their interest. Will the public — already angry at the government for a host of reasons — be charitable to the Aso government and return it to power in the midst of a crisis? The prime minister is better off waiting to see whether the two stimulus packages have some salutary effect before going to the people in a general election. And I doubt Mr. Aso is keen on the idea of potentially being one of the shortest-serving prime ministers ever.

All of which goes to say that the DPJ's new approach of calling Mr. Aso a coward for not calling an election is unlikely to succeed at either forcing Mr. Aso's hand or drastically impacting the prime minister's approval rating.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Pushing on a string

During its long "lost decade," Japan became painfully acquainted with the concept of pushing on a string.

In monetary policy, pushing on a string is when a central bank finds itself unable to reverse an economic downturn with customary monetary policy tools; famously, the Bank of Japan slashed nominal interest rates to zero without success in reversing the slump.

Aso Taro and the LDP may be facing similar circumstances a month into the Aso premiership (an anniversary Mr. Aso celebrated in style).

Over the course of 2008, the LDP has struggled to reverse dismal poll figures that show the public ready to abandon the LDP and give the DPJ its first chance to form a government. Former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo withered in the face of declining popularity, doing little but a cabinet reshuffle late into his government after months of grueling battles with the DPJ and within his party. Mr. Aso was supposed to be the key to reversing the slide. He was supposed to ride into office on a wave of support from not just within the LDP but from the public at large. But not only was his initial public support soft, but it has done nothing but slide. Mainichi's latest poll recorded a nine-point drop in Mr. Aso's public approval rating, falling to 36%. The same poll gave the DPJ a twelve-point lead over the LDP when it comes to which party respondents want to win the next general election. Support for the LDP fell five points to 36%, while support for the DPJ rose eleven points to 48%. As before, respondents continued to prefer Mr. Aso over DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro as prime minister, but it seems that the LDP's attacks on Ozawa Ichiro have had little impact on public support for the DPJ.

Of course, the public has little enthusiasm for the DPJ in and of itself. A recent Yomiuri-Waseda poll found widespread discontent and disappointment with both the LDP and the DPJ. The poll found that 78% of respondents are "dissatisfied" with the LDP and 79% are dissatisfied with the DPJ, while 69% are disappointed with the LDP, and 50% disappointed with the DPJ. Respondents were evenly split on whether they have hope for both parties. Without a look at the survey itself, I have no idea what the difference is between disappointment and dissatisfaction. I'm not certain whether these numbers actually tell us anything other than what we already know: that there is widespread disillusionment among Japanese voters about the state of Japanese politics going back years, if not decades. The LDP can take little pride in the finding that the public's expectations for the DPJ are just as low as its expectations for the LDP.

The upshot leads us back to the idea of pushing on a string. In the teeth of widespread public disillusionment with the status quo, there is little Mr. Aso can do to extract himself and his party from its predicament. Despite its first stimulus package and the promise of a second, the Mainichi poll recorded a drop in confidence in Mr. Aso's policy line (a shift found in other polls, as noted by Nakagawa Hidenao). The DPJ has refused to bite on foreign policy, and even if it did, the public has little interest in whether Japan continues refueling, at least compared with the public's interest in the state of the economy. It's possible that the second stimulus package, set to be formalized next Monday, will reverse the trend. The plan will contain a host of income and municipal tax cuts, tax cuts for homeowners, tax cuts for businesses large and small, and support for regional public works. The plan may also contain provisions to support the conversion of irregular employees to regular employees, a plan that theoretically would appeal to Mr. Aso's Akihabara base. But what reason is there to think that a second wave of goodies for the public will lead to a decisive shift in public opinion? It will take some time before voters begin seeing the fruits of the government's efforts, and in the mean time they will have plenty of time to reflect on the legacy of LDP rule and the gathering global gloom.

What we're left with is Mr. Aso's feeble attempts to illustrate that he understands the hardships facing Japanese citizens.

The prime minister is scheduled to decide on the timing of a general election by month's end. I will be surprised if he opts to hold one within the year. Why would he, when he has eleven months to keep pushing on the string of limp public support for the LDP in the hope of a breakthrough?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On the LDP and its factions

My latest contribution to the Far Eastern Economic Review's website — on the decline of the LDP's factions — can be found here.

Subscribers to the Far Eastern Economic Review can also find my take on the Aso cabinet in the October 2008 print edition.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Observing Japan turns two

I know that I've written far less frequently in recent weeks — as I expected when I started my graduate studies — but I thought I should mention that today marks the second anniversary since I began writing Observing Japan.

It's been quite a year: one prime minister out, another in; divided government; an interrupted reshuffling mission; vacant BOJ presidency; and plenty that I'm forgetting.

I cannot even begin to describe what I've gotten from blogging, so all I will do is thank all of you for your readership, your emails, and your comments. Thanks for bearing with me even as my posts have become less frequent.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The LDP looks to delay a general election

His poll numbers slipping (even in Yomiuri, in whose latest poll his approval rating fell 3.6% to 45.9% and his disapproval rating rose 5.2% to 38.6%), the financial system collapsing, the US "passing" Japan on North Korea, and the DPJ refusing to provide an issue with which the government can galvanize public opinion (for now), it is little wonder that Prime Minister Aso Taro is reconsidering calling an early election.

Due to the need for a second round of economic stimulus — I do hope the DPJ, even as it decides to cooperate, as I expect it eventually will, asks the obvious question of why the government needs a second stimulus package when the first one could have been altered to reflect the worsening economic situation — Mr. Aso seems to concur with the public that the government's response to the economic crisis should take precedence over a general election. In the aforementioned Yomiuri poll some seventy percent of respondents said precisely that. Mr. Aso seems happy to oblige.

So too does the LDP. Koga Makoto, the LDP's election strategy chief, suggested that in the current economic environment the LDP "cannot possibly consider" contesting an election. LDP elders are also citing the need to formulate a budget as a reason for delaying the election; if an election isn't held by 16-23 Nov., the government should wait until March or September of next year.

The DPJ is, of course, irate over the idea of waiting until next year to square off with the LDP in a general election it thinks it can win.

But the DPJ should not panic yet. It is by no means guaranteed that the LDP will be able to use the next year to engineer a reversal. The soft support for Mr. Aso is the clearest sign yet that the LDP is running short on options. Even a second stimulus package may not be enough to save the LDP from an electoral defeat, in part because it is not clear how exactly the government will pay for a second stimulus package (that, and the government's looming assumption of a greater share of the burden for pensions). After wracking up debts and mortgaging Japan's future — and then avoiding a debate over how to fix the problem — the LDP seems to have discovered that it is nearing the end of its ability to find creative ways around the budget problem.

Which surely lends itself to the argument that maybe the DPJ deserves a chance at governing, which apparently 58% of respondents in a recent Yomiuri poll now believe.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The US finally goes through with delisting North Korea

The thinkable is finally the actual.

After more than a year since it became plausible for the US to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as a reward for cooperation in negotiations over the North Korean nuclear program, the US State Department has announced that it will remove North Korea from the list. With the global financial system melting down, this move appears to have been timed in the hope that it would receive less scrutiny than it would otherwise. The US move may also been in response to signs that North Korea may be preparing another nuclear test.

Whatever the Bush administration's reasoning, the usual suspects in Japan once again reacted with shock at the US decision. Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi, in Washington for talks related to the financial crisis, reverted to his role as conservative hatchet man to criticize the US government for failing to consult with Japan, for abandoning the abductees, and for being played for a fool by North Korea. The media is reporting this as a demonstration of Japan's being "left out," observing that Prime Minister Aso received notice from Washington a mere half hour before it announced its decision. (Asahi described this as "a nightmare for the Japanese government.") Mainichi suggested that the decision illustrates the need for a rethink by the Japanese government. The abductee families characterized the decision as "an act of betrayal."

My sentiments are little different than they were in June 2008, when the Bush administration indicated that it was prepared to move forward with the delisting (before North Korea failed to follow through). Whatever the wisdom of the decision — there appear to be considerable holes regarding verification in the agreement, among other problems, as outlined by Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council — the rift between the US and Japan is the product of fundamental misunderstandings going back several years that have gone unaddressed by successive Japanese prime ministers and the Bush administration.

First, the Japanese government has mistakenly placed too much emphasis on the abductees and too little emphasis on the nuclear question. In emphasizing the abductee problem, Japan also came to really excessively on US pressure on North Korea. The alarm expressed above is symptomatic of this dependence: without US pressure, Tokyo has little hope of using sticks to force North Korea to be more cooperation on the abductions issue. Japan can keep extending its sanctions, but absent simultaneous US sanctions, they have little chance of working (not that joint US-Japan sanctions have had much effect).

Second, in connection to Japan's emphasis on the abductions issue, the Japanese government has also placed far too much emphasis on the US state sponsors of terrorism list, a designation which Secretary Rice called "a formality," thus making this step "completely meaningless" in practical terms. The Japanese government attached great importance to the designation because it took it literally. North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism thanks to its abductions of foreign nationals. Until it makes amends for the abductions, it is still a state sponsor of terrorism and therefore still belongs on the list. For the US, the designation was just another bargaining chip in the pursuit of a denuclearized North Korea. It appears that the US did little to disabuse Japan of its impression.

Discussion of the strengths and weaknesses (mostly the weaknesses) of the agreement will undoubtedly rage in the coming days. But the significance of this agreement is simple: the Bush administration has made it resolutely clear that US North Korea policy is not "action for action" as suggested by President Bush in June. Rather, the US has decided that it will buy North Korea's participation in the six-party talks and non-escalation of its nuclear activities through gradual concessions. Bowing to the reality of the situation in which the US has few alternatives to committing to negotiations, bilateral and multilateral, the Bush administration has made clear that bribery is now the essence of US North Korea policy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Given that North Korea's price isn't particularly onerous and given that the alternatives (a war on the Korean Peninsula, unchecked nuclear proliferation, collapse of the DPRK before the US and North Korea's neighbors are prepared to respond) are all worse than bribery, this may be the best possible approach.

Naturally Japan won't see it that way. Instead there will be talk of betrayal, abandonment, and potentially the need for greater Japanese independence from the US (recall Mr. Aso's role in the debate over a debate on nuclear weapons that raged in the early days of the Abe cabinet). But I don't see how this turn of events helps Mr. Aso. Having been blindsided by the US decision, Mr. Aso looks little different from his predecessors, despite his foreign policy experience and his purported Washington connections. Despite his commitment to resolving the abductions issue, the US finally decided to proceed with delisting under his watch. I still maintain that foreign policy will have little impact on the next general election, but at the very least it's possible that voters will wonder whether there is something to Ozawa Ichiro's critique of the LDP's foreign policy as subordinating Japan to the US without getting anything in return. The US has furnished Mr. Ozawa with a resonant example with which to make his case.

Meanwhile Japan has little reason to hope that the US will shift again on North Korea in the future. Should Barack Obama win the presidency next month, it is conceivable that he will embrace the "bribery" approach. Indeed, his approach — at least in the statement his campaign released in response to the delisting — is a succinct summary of the Bush administration's approach: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, a commitment to complete, verifiable denuclearization, and addressing the abductees issue at some point in the future. If John McCain wins, he will likely tack back to the Cheney line, reversing concessions to North Korea and restoring the US-Japan partnership on North Korea that prevailed 2002-2007. Senator McCain's response emphasized the failure to consult with "our closest partners in Northeast Asia," which presumably means Japan followed by South Korea. (The candidates' statements can be found here.)

Little wonder that Japanese conservatives are cheering for Senator McCain. (And little wonder that Komori Yasuhisa is repeating Republican talking points verbatim on Senator Obama at his blog.) (For more on the likely differences between an Obama and a McCain administration on Asia, see my article in the current Japan Inc.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The DPJ embraces tactical retreat

Yamaoka Kenji, the DPJ's Diet strategy chairman, indicated in Diet proceedings Wednesday that the DPJ will consent to a quick vote on the bill extending the MSDF's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean. He didn't say that the DPJ would support it, of course, but he did say that the DPJ would consent to moving the bill through the Diet with minimal debate.

Naturally Mr. Yamaoka and the DPJ are not acting out of charity. Rather, Mr. Yamaoka took care to emphasize in his remarks that why should the opposition sit on the bill when the LDP is assured of Komeito support in passing the bill a second time in the Diet.

By that Mr. Yamaoka clearly meant is that the DPJ should not waste precious time debating a bill that will pass anyway — now that Komeito has apparently backed down from its threat to not vote for the refueling mission should it come before the lower hosue a second time — and refocus the discussion on how the LDP has mismanaged pensions and health care.

The DPJ seems to have concluded that the next election will not be won on the floor of the Diet. It gains nothing from appearing unreasonably obstructionist, and it loses little from giving Mr. Aso victories on issues of lesser importance or of paramount importance, like the stimulus package, in which case the party would suffer if it were to oppose the bill. The election will be won in delivering the party's message that it is more responsive to the public on healthcare and pensions than the cold-hearted, "market-fundamentalist" (a term that surely resonates more today) LDP. This necessarily entails buying time for DPJ candidates to work that much harder to communicate with voters. Depriving Mr. Aso of salient issues is one way to buy some time.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Aso stumbles out of the gate

In Asahi's latest opinion poll, the Aso cabinet's approval rating fell seven points to 41%, and its disapproval rating rose six points to 42%. The skepticism of nonaligned voters about Aso Taro continues to grow, at least in this poll: the approval rating among nonaligned voters fell seven points to 24% and rose seven points to 48%. The DPJ also edged ahead in polling for lower house proportional representation voting.

Nakagawa Hidenao looked at this poll and concluded, "Stopping the trend of 'It's good to trust the DPJ with government one time' thinking among independents ought to be placed at the center of the LDP's strategy."

I'm not quite clear why Mr. Nakagawa thinks that this is a viable strategy — this was the closing line to his post, so until he elaborates, it's hard to know what he's thinking — but I doubt that this strategy will work. How does the LDP intend to demonstrate that the DPJ doesn't deserve even a single chance at governing, when the public is increasingly realizing that perhaps the LDP has had one too many chances at governing. Does Mr. Nakagawa really believe that the DPJ is so bad that it can't possibly be trusted with power? Really? Worse than the worst elements of the LDP, against whom the structural reformers have struggled and continue to struggle? If so, it's little wonder that there are few signs that the structural reformers are prepared to cut their ties with the LDP.

But given Mr. Aso's inability to crack the fifty percent ceiling, it is no surprise that the prospect of a snap election is receding into the distance. Mr. Aso emphasized in budget committee proceedings Monday that he is not thinking about an election at all, that economic stimulus takes precedence. The possibility of a dissolution and general election before the end of October appears nil. The Aso government, it seems, is fishing for an issue that it can use to rally the public to its standard. The DPJ has wisely decided that it will not block the government's supplementary budget containing its economic stimulus package. The bill will pass the lower house on Wednesday or Thursday before moving to the upper house, which may pass the bill by the end of next week. In doing so, the DPJ has deprived the LDP of the one issue that might have put the DPJ on the defensive. Based on opinion polls that showed considerable public interest in the economic stimulus plan, the DPJ would likely have been punished if it opposed the government's plan. At the same time, however, the government will not get all that much credit for doing what the public expects it to do.

In the meantime, the LDP still has to find an issue that will give it some momentum in an election campaign. What's left for the government? A unified consumer affairs agency? Not something that voters would oppose, but not exactly something they'll be excited about either. The MSDF refueling mission? Foreign policy will not win turn the tide for the LDP, not when the DPJ can criticize the LDP for its mishandling of pensions and health care. Expect to see more of Nagatsuma Akira, the DPJ's "Mr. Pensions," in the coming weeks and months. On Monday, Mr. Nagatsuma questioned Mr. Aso and Masuzoe Yoichi for seventy-five minutes, asking questions on the pensions problem for more than half the time. The 2007 pensions problem may be the gift that keeps on giving for the DPJ. The LDP can promise pro-growth policies, but it has little control over whether the economy will turn around before the next election (other than delaying the election as long as possible in the hope that growth returns before September 2009). While it is unclear what impact the deepening global financial crisis will have on the Japanese economy, it will likely have a psychological impact on the Japanese public, heightening feelings of economic insecurity. This can only help the DPJ.

Little wonder that Mr. Aso's numbers are trending downward. He is wholly unable to take control of the situation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Ozawa responds

Two days after Aso Taro issued his challenge to the DPJ to put country first, DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro delivered his rebuttal to Mr. Aso's address.

The speech was mostly a repeat of his speech last month to the DPJ convention following his uncontested reelection as DPJ president.

In contrast to Mr. Aso, he provided a series of detailed policies that the DPJ wants to see passed. The proposal to end special account budgets and redirect the money into the general fund, a much more radical plan to free up budget room than the LDP's emphasis on "trimming waste." His pitch for a DPJ-led government is rooted in the idea that political change is essential if Japan is to reverse the decline in the living standard of the Japanese people. In this sense, Mr. Ozawa is taking Koizumi Junichiro's argument to its logical conclusion: if changing the LDP from within failed to bring structural change to Japan's economy, then throwing the LDP out of power is the next step.

Of course, where Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Koizumi part ways is in how the Japanese economy should change. Mr. Ozawa reiterated the need to "build a new livelihood for the people." Central to his plan is "fundamentally changing how tax revenue is spent," which will in turn free funds for use in rebuilding a social safety net. The components of Mr. Ozawa's plan for that safety net are (1) shifting full responsibility for paying pensions to the state, (2) a 26,000 yen monthly child allowance to families until a child leaves middle school, (3) making public high schools free and lowering fees for private high schools and universities, (4) banning dispatch labor contracts that are shorter than two months, (5) raising the national average minimum hourly wage by 1000 yen, (6) implementing the income compensation program for farmers and possibly fishermen, and (7) cutting taxes for small- and medium-sized businesses.

Jun Okumura looks at the DPJ's budgetary figures and reckons that after three years the DPJ will not have enough revenue from the new sources it wants to tap to pay for its agenda, which only goes to show that changing how the government spends tax revenue is only a temporary fix. The budget deficit will not be fixed simply by shuffling revenue around. This scheme may simply postpone Japan's fiscal day of reckoning.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa also offered his foreign policy vision. He first offered his support for the US-Japan alliance as a pillar of Japanese foreign policy, but argued that a strong alliance depends on an equal partnership. I have no argument with Mr. Ozawa on this point. Second, he emphasized the importance of strengthening relations with Japan's neighbors, China and South Korea especially. Finally, he reiterated his argument that the UN is the second pillar of Japanese foreign policy alongside the US-Japan alliance. The LDP loves to criticize Mr. Ozawa for his "UN-centrism," but I'm not sure that the Japanese people are all that upset with the UN or Mr. Ozawa's emphasis on Japan's contributions through the UN organization. Mr. Ozawa's foreign policy proposal is, in short, the status quo — a stronger, more equal US-Japan alliance, closer relations with Japan's neighbors, and international cooperation through the UN.

Arguably, Mr. Ozawa's speech should reassure Japanese voters that the DPJ's hand will be steady. Change, but not too much, and more as a result from tossing the LDP. As in Mr. Ozawa's motto, change so as to remain the same. With Mr. Aso accepting the DPJ's terms for debate, the next election increasingly looks to be a question of managerial competence. Which party can best deliver on the promise of remaking policy to ease public insecurities and set Japan down the right path for the future? The LDP thinks it can win this debate by harping on Mr. Ozawa's personal flaws, but for that to work the public will have to view Mr. Ozawa's failings as outweighing the collective failings of the LDP, past, present, and future. It's also little wonder that Mr. Aso is now talking about delaying a general election and prioritizing economic stimulus legislation. This may be a feint, but it looks like a rational response to the news that the public will not automatically flock to the LDP simply because Mr. Aso is now the prime minister. His government has to deliver. Fortunately for the LDP, it has the help of a supermajority in the lower house.

As noted previously, the DPJ must tread carefully. It cannot simply say no. It must debate in good faith and attempt to put its personal stamp on any economic stimulus package. Mr. Aso wants a plan for the good of the nation? Good. Then force him to accept revisions that prevent him from taking sole credit for the plan, and hope that the LDP continues to provide examples of why it cannot be trusted with power. And argue that even if the LDP can get economic stimulus right, it has no plan for what to do next.

The stereotype of the DPJ as an unserious opposition party should be put to rest. The DPJ has a plan for governing. It may not be perfect, but it's a plan, complete with details about spending. But the job of a political party isn't to have a plan that's perfect in every detail. It's to have the right marriage of political vision and policy program. The DPJ increasingly has both, and both resonant with the voters. It will take more than calumny aimed at the "Ozawa DPJ" to chip away at the DPJ's mounting support.