Monday, September 29, 2008

Aso the exhorter

Prime Minister Aso Taro officially opened the extraordinary session of the Diet with his first policy address.

Press coverage of the speech has uniformly characterized it as taking to the offensive to the DPJ.

In the first portion of the speech, Mr. Aso suggested that in its opposition to government plans, the DPJ has put the people's livelihoods second or third, not first as its slogan proclaims. He declared that he would attack the DPJ on its own terms, challenging the DPJ's claim to speak for the people against the LDP-Komeito coalition.

To do so, he offered his three-pronged economic plan focused on (1) fighting the recession, (2) medium-term fiscal reconstruction, and (3) long-term structural reform in the interest of economic growth. Under the first scheme, he pledged tax cuts designed to provide immediate relief for Japanese citizens, although Mr. Aso called particular attention to farmers, fishermen, and small- and medium-sized businessmen. He appealed to the DPJ to support the supplementary budget that includes the tax cut, or at least engage in a debate and offer a bill of its own. Meanwhile he mentioned fiscal reconstruction only to state that it is off the table for the foreseeable future. Fiscal reconstruction, Mr. Aso said, is a means to an end, namely Japanese prosperity. Unless Japan's economy is growing it is misguided to talk of fiscal rectitude. (It would be nice, however, if Mr. Aso weren't so cavalier about the idea that if Japan doesn't find a way to both stimulate its economy and fix its budget situation, the medium- to long-term prognosis for the Japanese economy is dismal. Given how little space Mr. Aso devotes to this second point, it appears that it was included because it had to be included, but that Mr. Aso's government will particularly concerned with the budget. The public, after all, isn't exactly clamoring for a balanced budget.)

Finally he turned to his version of structural reform, although he did not use the now-tainted term. Clearly drawing on the ideas experienced in his March Chuo Koron article, he called for restoring confidence in the pensions and health care systems. On health care, he rejected a wholesale revision of the April eldercare system, suggesting that the problem was that it was "poorly explained" by the government and asking for patience. Turning to the "youth" problem, he called for a minimum wage increase and reviewing the labor dispatch problem. He included two leftovers from the Fukuda government, the pursuit of a consumer affairs agency and the need to cut government waste. On the latter, however, he fudged by declaring that the task is making government more efficient and more responsive to the public, but not necessarily a less expensive government. He called for greater regional decentralization — as he has articulated before — and said that he's aiming for fifty percent agricultural self-sufficiency. And he concluded with a long explanation of his government's foreign policy goals, starting with "stable and prosperous" relations with Japan's neighbors, moving on to greater involvement in solving global problems, supporting young democracies in the region, and reaffirmed the centrality of the resolution of the abductions issue for Japan-North Korea normalization to proceed. He then, in a move that undoubtedly pleased Washington, appealed to the DPJ to recognize the importance of the US-Japan alliance and reiterated the importance of the MSDF's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

This was a campaign speech masquerading as a policy address.

It's not just a matter of his redirecting questions back at the DPJ; it's that he doesn't really seem that interested in articulating policy except in exceedingly broad strokes. To call it a laundry list would be insulting to laundry lists. Consider the two policy addresses Fukuda Yasuo gave to open last year's extraordinary session and this year's ordinary session. The conditions facing Mr. Fukuda in both instances were little different than those facing Mr. Aso. But Mr. Fukuda in both instances worked to call attention to the gravity of the problems facing Japan and tried to articulate a way out. His speech this time last year was less detailed, but he laid out his priorities and signaled that he would govern differently. His January address, however, was full of specific policies to address a range of problems. And he did not shrink from stating just how serious Japan's current predicament is.

With his optimism, Mr. Aso breezed over the latter — his belief in Japan's latent power seems to have him convinced that Japan can weather anything. His optimism is undoubtedly an asset. The public will likely be pleased to hear a prime minister who believes that things will get better and that there will be an end to their insecurities. In this, Mr. Aso addressed one of the major complaints about Koizumi Junichiro, namely that he put destruction before construction.

But I don't think his strategy of reclaiming the momentum by calling out the DPJ will work. I see the political logic: Mr. Aso needs the public to forget that the LDP is responsible for having brought Japan to where it is today and to see the DPJ as responsible for having created gridlock for putting party before country. (Of course, this is exactly what Mr. Aso is doing too.) But will the public buy it? The public seems to be more interested in things getting done than in this kind of political gamesmanship. And I doubt that a single speech will make voters forget years of LDP maladministration.

Morever, at MTC argues, I don't think the DPJ will be cowed by Mr. Aso's exhortation to put country first. (The McCain-Aso comparisons continue to mount...)

The DPJ shouldn't shy away from a policy debate. Indeed, they should relish the opportunity to ask Mr. Aso for details about what exactly he plans to do. The DPJ should be insistent on discussing whether the stimulus package pushed for by the government will actually address the public's concerns, whether he thinks the current eldercare system is really working for Japan's citizens, whether the prime minister should be so concerned about foreign policy at a time like this. There's the assumption in this speech that there's one best way to solve Japan's problems. There's not. And with the DPJ in control of the upper house, any solution must be an LDP-DPJ solution. Under Mr. Fukuda the LDP appeared to think that cooperation in the divided Diet means dictating terms to the DPJ. Under Mr. Aso it appears that things will be little different.

Mr. Aso is vulnerable. He can parry and thrust on these policy questions, but in being drawn into a protracted policy debate with the DPJ, he will look less like the newly ordained leader of the nation and more like the leader of the decrepit, old LDP with its anti-Midas touch. The DPJ must not allow Mr. Aso to portray himself as transcending politics and parties, as acting only with the country's interests at heart. Mr. Aso's genuine love for Japan may make this hard — it's a pretty convincing act — but if the DPJ stands fast on policy questions and allows the Aso cabinet to self-destruct, it will be able to halt the Aso offensive.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Aso's beautiful country

MTC has a must-read post on a New York Times editorial rebuking Aso Taro for his "pugnacious" nationalism.

Mr. Aso, MTC argues, differs from his fellow conservatives in his patriotism. Aso, he writes, "is infatuated with Japan, with what it is, whatever it might become. His is not the defensive possessiveness of an insecure man. He wants to share with everyone his enthusiasm. He hopes that everyone in the world can come to see his country the way he sees it: as flawed, yes, but for the most part wonderful, kind, quirky, appealing and charming. Like a lover, he underplays the faults of the object of his desire."

This is an absolutely critical point in understanding Japan's new prime minister.

He is not merely the ideological twin of Abe Shinzo.

Recall that Mr. Abe's book is entitled Towards a beautiful country. That "towards," in Japanese a simple へ, carries decades worth of baggage. Mr. Abe does not particularly like Japan as it exists today. Why else would he be so eager to cast off the postwar system, as he promised over and over again? His love is for the Japan that could be if only the country would follow his ideas. In some way the postwar system is a cul-de-sac for Mr. Abe, an extended detour from the path Japan ought to follow. Mr. Abe's nationalism is about reclaiming the past to provide a guide to the future. [It's possible that the へ in the title is "To," as in a dedication "To a beautiful country," but I think that in light of Mr. Abe's slogan "building a beautiful country" and various statements over the course of his government, "towards" is accurate.]

By contrast, Mr. Aso freely embraces the products of the postwar system. Indeed, Mr. Aso thinks that the products of the postwar system make Japan one of the best countries in the world. In his 2006 book Aso Taro no genten - Yoshida Shigeru no ryugi (Aso Taro's origin — the way of Yoshida Shigeru), he is full of praise for Mr. Abe's "postwar system." He praises Japan and its citizens for mottainai, energy conservation, the education system, cleaniness, industriousness, health, middle-class consciousness, and non-ideological thinking (this last is slightly ironic). This is the essence of Mr. Aso's (and Mr. Yoshida's) use of the phrase "latent power": the essential qualities of the Japanese people — some examples he gives are an aethestic sense and sensitivity — are a source of strength, and by implication, if only the government can use its power to ease the insecurities of the people and enable them to tap this latent power, Japan will once again retake its rightful position as a world leader. He does not appear to accept the argument made by various conservatives that the virtues of the Japanese people have been corroded by peace, prosperity, and the influence of American culture. His is not a cowering conservatism with a worldview full of bogeymen, whether the United States, China, or the Japanese left (Nakayama Nariaki's sneering at Nikkyoso, the left-wing Japanese teachers' union, is an example of this last point). As such, pride is different for Mr. Aso. He is proud of Japan as it is. Not Japan as a platonic ideal that the Japanese people can reach if only they listen to their (conservative) leaders. Not Japan as it was. Japan as it is today.

The result is, as MTC observes, a certain lightness in Mr. Aso's treatment of history. Unlike his comrades, he is not obsessed with the past. He respects the contributions made by Japan's war dead (as he makes clear in this speech on Yasukuni) but he appears more interested in reclaiming what one might call the Japanese dream than in refighting Japan's culture war.

Back in the Abe days, I linked to a review of Nicholas Sarkozy's Testimony by Bernard-Henri Levy, in which BHL speaks of M. Sarkozy's desire to overlook the blackest moments of the French twentieth century and look to a brighter, more glorious future. I suggested that M. Sarkozy shared this desire with Mr. Abe. But I may have been mistaken — Mr. Abe is obsessed with the blackest moments of Japan's twentieth century, if only to cast them in a different light, relativize them, or otherwise make them seem not quite as black. Mr. Aso is less interested in revising than in moving on, much like President Sarkozy. Now, as I wrote in the aforementioned post, I disagree with this desire to move on, but it must be said, as MTC notes, that there is a big difference between wanting to move on and wanting to revise the past.

I have plenty of areas of disagreement with Mr. Aso — notably absent from his list of Japan's accomplishments is its peacefulness (at least in part a product of his grandfather's and successors' decisions to institutionalize Japan's free- or cheap-riding on the US) — but I will not criticize him for his nationalism, which is at least rooted in Japan as it is.

Meanwhile I wonder if the differences between Mr. Aso's nationalism and Mr. Abe's nationalism are a result of the legacies of their prime minister grandfathers. Yoshida Shigeru virtually built the postwar system that Mr. Abe so despises. He laid the foundation for Japan's becoming the country of which Mr. Aso is so proud. Kishi Nobusuke raged against the Yoshida regime and the constitution that undergirded it (although he made his own contributions to the postwar system).

Mr. Aso may ultimately represent an attempt to merge these two traditions, an unabashed constitutional revisionist who is also unambiguously proud of the postwar system.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Aso aims for his base

It seems that in sweeping to office with the support of two thirds of the votes in the LDP presidential election, and with even more support among the party's rank-and-file supporters, Aso Taro has decided that the key to winning the next general election is...satisfying his electoral base?

Has Mr. Aso been talking with Karl Rove?

All of the initial polls showed that independents disapprove of the Aso cabinet more than they approve of it. Nakagawa Hidenao — no fan of Mr. Aso — provides a comprehensive look at the polls and concludes that nonaligned voters are suspicious of Mr. Aso and reminds readers that it will be nonaligned voters in urban Japan who will decide the outcome of the next general election.

And yet Mr. Aso decided that his first priority as prime minister was to fly to New York to give a speech at the United Nations on foreign policy. What exactly did Mr. Aso hope to accomplish? Judging from the content of his speech, it seemed that Mr. Aso was signaling to his conservative supporters that he intends to pick up right where the Abe cabinet left off in September 2007, except the Aso cabinet will be, if anything, more relentless, more ambitious, and even less hesitant than the Abe government in pursuing a global leadership role for Japan.

As press coverage of Mr. Aso's speech has uniformly noted, in a press conference after his speech Mr. Aso suggested that the constitutional interpretation on collective self-defense should be revised, a comment that will make his conservative supporters happy and make other Japanese citizens annoyed. He also signaled the return of the abductees to the top of Japan's agenda vis-a-vis North Korea, a shift that North Korea has abetted in its backsliding in the six-party talks. And of course he promised that Japan would continue to contribute to the war on terror in the form of its MSDF refueling mission. How Mr. Aso intends to get that one through the Diet, before or after a possible general election, is wholly beyond me.

I understand the symbolism of Mr. Aso's making a trip to New York virtually his first act upon taking office. I appreciate that he is at once signaling to the international community and the Japanese people that Japan under his watch will be dynamic again, especially considering that Japan's prime ministers have been absent from the UN's September summit for three years running. But I don't think either of his intended audiences will be particularly impressed by his symbolic gesture. There was nothing particularly offensive in his UN speech, but nothing memorable either. And unless Mr. Aso figures out how to fix the problems at home, and fast, he will be just another in a procession of Japanese prime ministers full of lofty words and short on the ability to follow through.

Fixing Japan's economy is, after all, Mr. Aso's primary task, right? I would think that Japanese voters would have been far more impressed by an initial symbolic gesture related to the health or pensions systems or the worsening economy — perhaps dredging up the social security plans he floated back in the March issue of Chuo Koron and declaring that he intends to make social security accountability and transparency the central issue of the election. (Okay, I don't know how that would work, but presumably anything related to the top three concerns of Japanese voters would have been politically wiser than jetting off to New York to give a soon-to-be-forgotten speech.)

I thought that Mr. Aso had learned the lesson of the Abe government. Recall again that article Mr. Aso wrote earlier this year, signaling what I called his reinvention in preparation for this very moment. In that article he pointedly criticized Mr. Abe, arguing:
I have previously placed my faith in the former Abe cabinet's pioneering of constitutional revision, education reform, and a resolute foreign and defense establishment — as it were, part of the work of reimagining the state as demanded by the age — and believe these constitute an important pillar [of the conservative revival]. But I think that if we do not embrace our former LDP mainstream's "politics of tolerance and patience," if we do not stop growing inequality, and if we do not work cooperatively for economic policy that unifies Japanese society, we will not become a conservatism that opens the way to the future.
(The full text is available in a PDF from Mr. Aso's website.)

Apparently Mr. Abe's problem was not inaction but rather a failure to talk enough about these problems. Or Mr. Aso simply didn't mean a word he wrote in this article and that he intended to govern like Mr. Abe all along, in which case it is unlikely that he will enjoy any more luck in governing than Mr. Abe did.

Your public waits, Mr. Aso, and it appears to be getting restless.

It's a bad sign for the new prime minister when his lowest poll numbers come from the newspaper most friendly to his agenda (recall that opinion poll results often track the editorial lines of the sponsoring papers). Sankei found that Mr. Aso's approval rating is a mere 44.6%. The respondents also seemed more favorably disposed to Mr. Ozawa, with only a ten-point gap separating him from Mr. Aso on the question of leadership ability. Sankei also found that respondents favor the DPJ over the LDP in proportional representation voting 39.3% to 36%, and when asked who they want to win the next election, they favored the DPJ to the LDP by a 48.5% to 40.7% margin. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new prime minister.

Meanwhile his efforts to get down to business at home will be hampered by Nakayama Nariaki's shitsugen, Koizumi Junichiro's surprise retirement, and persistent discussion of general election timing.

I cannot help but wonder if Mr. Aso is Japan's John McCain, known for being a conservative "maverick" — straight talk and all — who is capable of disagreeing with other conservatives from time to time but is also utterly clueless about economic matters and more interested in the glory of foreign policy leadership. As one article at JanJan wonders, does Mr. Aso have what it takes to deal with the worsening economy?

"I think that it clearly appeared in this LDP presidential election that Mr. Aso's understanding of the economy is overly optimistic and his knowledge lacking."

Thus far, Mr. Aso has done little to demonstrate otherwise.

If Mr. Aso doesn't recall his own post-mortem of the Abe cabinet, he won't even get the chance to continue the elements of the Abe agenda he finds so praiseworthy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Japanese public decides to wait and see on Aso

On Sunday, I suggested that Aso Taro would not enjoy the honeymoon enjoyed by his predecessors upon becoming prime minister.

Now that the first opinion polls are in, it is clear that the public is losing its tolerance for LDP inaction.

There was talk that the Aso cabinet might receive public approval in the sixties; isn't that why the LDP tapped Mr. Aso in the first place?

But it was not to be. In most of the major polls, he fell short of 50% approval, falling short of even Fukuda Yasuo's initial approval ratings. Nikkei recorded a 53% approval rating, matched by a 40% disapproval rating. It also recorded a three-point lead (36% to 33%) for the LDP in proportional representation voting in the next election. Asahi found 48% approval, 36% disapproval and recorded a 36% to 32% lead for the LDP in the PR race, Mainichi found 45% approval, 26% disapproval and a 41% to 37% lead for the LDP in which party respondents want to win the election, and Yomiuri recorded 49.5% approval and 33.4% disapproval.

I have to imagine that Mr. Aso and the LDP are unsettled by these numbers, seeing as how they're some of the lowest figures for a new government seen since Mori Yoshiro's cabinet. Moreover, the differentials between the disapproval and approval ratings in these polls are also some of the lowest since Mr. Mori.

The reality is that the public appears to have lost its patience with the LDP. The voters may like Mr. Aso personally — they still prefer him to Mr. Ozawa — but I'm guessing that most voters won't be casting their votes on the basis of who they like more. Presumably if that were the case the responses to the "who do you prefer as prime minister" question would better track the "who do you want to win the next election" question. All that will matter are results. Interestingly, Mainichi found that 68% of respondents want the supplementary budget to take precedence over a general election. It also found that 66% approve of the government's decision to put pro-growth policies before deficit cutting, and only 29% want "structural reform as promoted by former Prime Minister Koizumi" to continue, compared to 61% who don't. The interest in the supplemental budget suggests that the DPJ must tread carefully, because if it doesn't it could give the Aso government an issue around which to rally voters. Little surprise, meanwhile, that Koizumism is a non-starter to the public. Structural reform, it seems, is a luxury reserved for good times. What the Japanese people care about now is encapsulated in Yomiuri's poll: (1) economic stimulus (83%), the pensions problem (79%), food safety (79%), and eldercare (72%). Furthermore, 68% approve of the LDP-Komeito agreement to review the controversial eldercare system for citizens over 75.

It seems that most voters are now looking at which party will best protect them from hardship. And so the debt will continue to go, regardless of which party wins. And the day of reckoning for the Japanese economy will come, sooner or later.

But enough gloom. There is plenty of good news for the DPJ in these results. Mr. Aso's accesion to the Kantei turns out to have been less of a game changer than one might have thought. Mr. Aso is no less constrained than Mr. Fukuda. His henjin personality is neutralized by the fact that the public is hungry for results. The DPJ has to stand fast, remind the public of how the LDP led the country into the current mess in the first place, and point to Mr. Aso's cabinet as a sign of just how unserious Mr. Aso is about governing. The general election is still open.

(Speaking of unserious about governing, which would you say is worse? John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate, or Aso Taro's selection of Nakagawa Shoichi to be his finance minister? Probably the former, no contest.)

The best way to characterize this first round of polling is that the public has decided to wait and see before committing all out to supporting Mr. Aso. And given how high his disapproval ratings are already, they are skeptical about his ability to deliver results quickly.

Suicide pact

Mere days after the birth of the Aso cabinet, the LDP has unveiled its new posters featuring the new prime minister.

One features the slogan, "Aso accomplishes." Another says, in words reminiscent of the LDP's 2007 election slogan, "First, economic growth." Notably, the posters feature not simply the party's name but the ambiguous phrase, "Aso LDP activation." Mr. Aso reactivating the LDP? Whatever it means, Mr. Aso's name comes before the name of his party.

These posters are revealing, telling us just what the LDP has done by making Aso Taro its leader. By giving Mr. Aso an enormous mandate, the LDP has lashed its fate to Mr. Aso. It has gambled that Mr. Aso's popularity will be enough to rescue the party from years of mistakes. Gone is any discussion of what the LDP stands for, or what voters can expect if they vote for the LDP. Contrast that with the DPJ, which even as it has entered a suicide pact of its own with Ozawa Ichiro has still emphasized a policy vision. With Mr. Aso and his hodgepodge cabinet, it's anyone's guess. Spending out of a recession? A consumption tax increase? Spending cuts? Deregulation? More regulation? Another new eldercare system? Preserving the existing system? The LDP and Mr. Aso are flailing about in the hope that voters will mistake movement for decisive action.

It seems that Mr. Aso and the LDP deserve each other.

And it's easy to see why the reformers, who for better or worse actually have a program, might be ready to leave the LDP. The LDP that Mr. Koizumi destroyed at least had an identity and a purpose. A venal purpose, perhaps, but at least it was an ethos. The new, post-Koizumi LDP is the proverbial headless chicken, regardless of the man at the head of the party.

The end is nigh

I have previously speculated on the consequences of Aso Taro's becoming prime minister for the future of the LDP.

In this post, for example, I wrote, "...If the conservatives retake control of the LDP under Mr. Aso and reunite with Mr. Hiranuma, that alliance could prove fatal for the LDP, as the readmission of Mr. Hiranuma and the other postal rebels could lead Mr. Koizumi and his followers out of the party, perhaps prompting liberals unconnected to Mr. Koizumi to leave too and drift towards the DPJ."

It seems that it may not even take Hiranuma Takeo's return into the party for Mr. Aso's election to be the catalyst for an exodus of reformers from the LDP.

The immediate catalyst instead is Koizumi Junichiro's decision to not run for reelection and let his 27-year-old (my near contemporary) son Shinjiro run in his stead.

As MTC notes, with Mr. Koizumi goes the last thread connecting his reformist followers with the party. Those reformists were undoubtedly aware that they had no place in Aso Taro's LDP; as Yamauchi Koichi wrote, Mr. Aso's new cabinet is purged of members of Nakagawa Hidenao's "rising tide" school. Instead there is an assortment of politicians looking to prime the pump a bit more, with Yosano Kaoru included in the mix to lend an air of responsibility to the proceedings. (I wonder why he is willing to participate in the farce, if he's serious about what he says about the need for fiscal retrenchment.)

The question now is whether Mr. Koizumi's followers leave before or after a general election. Why they would stay around to campaign under Mr. Aso's standard is beyond me. I do not expect them to join with Ozawa Ichiro's DPJ, which undoubtedly they see as little better (cf. Nakagawa Hidenao's posts on the DPJ). Will we see a three-way general election, with a Koizumian New Party the wild card?

Whatever the outcome, the LDP appears to be on the road to becoming a rump party comprised of an alliance between nationalist hawks and party stalwarts longing to break open the bank.

Even in his retirement, Mr. Koizumi retains his flare for the dramatic, in the process wrecking Mr. Aso's long-awaited opening night.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Aso wins!

Aso Taro is the new president of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). As expected, he won in a landslide, receiving roughly two-thirds of all votes (351 of 527 votes).

He received 217 of 386 parliamentary votes to 64 for Yosano Kaoru, 46 for Koike Yuriko, 36 for Ishihara Nobuteru, and 21 for Ishiba Shigeru.

After rejecting him in 2007 and 2006 (and 2001, when he finished a distant third), the LDP has decided to entrust its fate at a critical juncture in its history to Mr. Aso, a conservative-populist maverick, grandson of Yoshida Shigeru, Catholic, and onetime Olympian, with a tendency to make embarrassing and insensitive verbal gaffes.

Both the LDP and Mr. Aso (discussed here) may come to regret their embrace.

The prefectural vote

Yomiuri reports that Aso Taro's final tally in the prefectural voting was 134 out of 141 votes.

Ishiba Shigeru received four, Yosano Kaoru received two, Ishihara Nobuteru received one, and Koike Yuriko received zero.

Yomiuri has declared Mr. Aso the next LDP president, although the results of the vote among parliamentary members has not been announced yet.

Aso's big weekend

The LDP's parliamentarians are gathering to vote for the next party president at this very moment, but the outcome is all but assured.

Thirty of forty-seven LDP prefectural chapters voted over the weekend, and those thirty gave all but six of their ninety votes to Mr. Aso.

Koike Yuriko received zero votes. Ishiba Shigeru received all three of his home prefecture's (Tottori) votes, plus one from neighboring Shimane prefecture. Yosano Kaoru and Ishihara Nobuteru received one apiece, from Tokushima and Nara respectively.

There is little doubting Mr. Aso's popularity among the LDP's rank-and-file members. There is no question that the parliamentary party will confirm the choice of party's chapters in this afternoon's voting, awarding Mr. Aso the presidency after the first round of voting.

Of course, Mr. Aso's landslide victory serves only to heighten the tension between the parliamentary party and the party's grassroots. Will the party's rival schools of thought — represented by Mr. Aso's rival candidates — be cowed by Mr. Aso's lopsided victory? Koizumism appears to have little place in the party's grassroots, even in Tokyo, in which Mr. Koizumi won an overwhelming victory in 2005.

Mr. Aso is moving quickly to consolidate his grip on the party. He has already indicated that he will ask Hosoda Hiroyuki, a six-term lower house member from the Machimura faction, to serve as LDP secretary-general. Mr. Hosoda served as Mr. Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary from 2004-2005 (he succeeded Fukuda Yasuo and preceded Abe Shinzo in that post) and had previously served in the Koizumi cabinet as minister without portfolio for technology policy and Okinawa and the Northern Territories policy. He shares Mr. Aso's interest in promoting high technology. His Wikipedia entry also notes that US policymakers are in awe of him: Former US Ambassador Howard Baker, meeting with him to discuss North Korea's nuclear program, thought he was a nuclear engineer; Condoleeza Rice, having negotiated with Mr. Hosoda while he was CCS, said "He's so smart."

One factor in Mr. Hosoda's appointment is undoubtedly his membership in the Machimura faction; Mr. Aso is obviously repaying his debt to Mori Yoshiro for his support of his candidacy. But will Mr. Hosoda be an asset on the campaign trail? One factor in his favor is that he represents the first district of sparsely populated, poor Shimane prefecture. Mr. Hosoda has had considerable electoral success, winning with nearly twice as many votes as his nearest rival in the four elections under the new electoral system. Whether he would be able to use that personal popularity in support of LDP candidates in similar districts remains to be seen.

Mr. Aso's cabinet has yet to take form, although it appears that Mr. Yosano and Mr. Ishiba will both accept Mr. Aso's offer to serve. I imagine that Mr. Aso will do as best as he can to form a unity cabinet. The question is whether his ideological rivals are prepared to commit to an Aso-led "populist" government.

UPDATE: The final vote total from the prefectural chapters is available here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The shape of the Ozawa revolution

"Now is the time to change Japan. It is not exaggeration to say that this is the last chance to change."

So said Ozawa Ichiro Sunday as he marked his uncontested election to a third term as president of the DPJ.

Mr. Ozawa gave an extended policy address to mark the occasion and to steel his party and its opposition partners for the forthcoming general election campaign. Mr. Ozawa's address will steal some thunder from Aso Taro's imminent coronation as LDP president, but its value is bigger than a ploy to draw media attention to the LDP. Mr. Ozawa tried to give some substance to the revolution that could result from "regime change," echoing the belligerent rhetoric of Koizumi Junichiro — Mr. Ozawa spoke of the coming election as the "last battle" — to advance his position in the fight to reimagine the Japanese state and its relationship with society.

Renewing his party's pledge to put the people's livelihood first, he offered a nine-point program for an Ozawa government, largely a recapitulation of the party's 2007 manifesto: (1) restoring health and pensions systems; (2) instituting policies to encourage childrearing, starting with child allowances; (3) reducing the number of "working poor" and ensuring work for those who want to work; (4) revitalizing regions by revitalizing agriculture and small- and medium-sized businesses; (5) lifting the burden of high prices; (6) eliminating "special account budgets" to return money from the bureaucrats to the people; (7) implementing "true" regional decentralization; (8) opening politics to the people; and (9) working to preserve the environment and international peace.

These proposals are not new — and certainly not unique to the DPJ — and will undoubtedly attract questions about how the DPJ will implement these policies (and how it will pay for them).

To answer that question, Mr. Ozawa offered what may amount to a wholesale reinvention of how the government formulates its budgets. To reorient government to serve the interests of an insecure public and to implement the nine-point program, he called for a "general rearrangement" of the budget, most notably by dissolving the special account budgets that finance semi-public corporations and considerable infrastructure work, among other projects that tend to receive less scrutiny than the general budget. The goal seems to be a reconstruction of the Japanese budget from scratch, a far more revolutionary idea than Nakagawa Hidenao's crusade against government waste. Whether the DPJ will be able to accomplish such an ambitious goal is an open question, but this discussion is only possible under a DPJ government, less attached to the existing arrangement between the LDP and the bureaucracy. Connected with this is a promise by Mr. Ozawa regarding the timing of the DPJ's program, declaring that proposals will be passed into law either next year, within the next two years, or within the next four years.

Not surprisingly, Yomiuri is skeptical of Mr. Ozawa's agenda and asks what of Japan's participation in "the war on terror," but Yomiuri seems to have little idea of the coalition Mr. Ozawa is assembling under the DPJ's banner. Sounding not unlike candidates from the US Democratic Party, Mr. Ozawa spoke of his travels from north to south, his conversations with those who have suffered under LDP-Komeito rule, especially its market fundamentalism and survival-of-the-fittest politics, and grounded his appeal in the sufferings of the Japanese people. He questioned the LDP's attentiveness to the public's insecurities, drawing a contrast between the LDP's casual replacement of prime ministers and enduring economic hardships.

"Although one can reset in video games, one cannot reset in real-life politics and in the lives of the people. Although the LDP president can abandon an administration, the people cannot abandon their lives. People who cannot understand even this self-evident matter do not have the qualities to wield power."

The idea is less that the LDP is the deliberate enemy of the Japanese people than that the LDP is unserious about the people's woes, more concerned with sloganeering and posturing than with fixing Japan's problems.

Contrary to the arguments of the Japanese establishment, a DPJ victory will not depend on the strength and specificity of its policy program, just as an LDP victory will not depend on its policy specifics. Much like in the United States, electoral victory will depend on who can best embody a break with the (recent) past. To win, Mr. Aso will have to run against his predecessors, inconvenient for him considering his service in the Koizumi and Abe governments. Seeing as how the Japanese economy has only worsened since the LDP lost the 2007 upper house election, it is all too easy for Mr. Ozawa to make the case once again that the LDP is indifferent to the people's concerns, to ask the public to set aside their doubts about Mr. Ozawa and to turn their attention to the government in Tokyo that has neglected them.

Will it work again? Will enough voters see the LDP as bankrupt — even with Mr. Aso at its helm — and turn to the DPJ as the best hope for change in Japanese politics? It just might. The combination of a worsening economy, a broken LDP, faltering social services, and Mr. Ozawa's ramblings across Japan may be enough to break the LDP's hold on power. (Here's an intriguing idea: if the general election is held after the US presidential election, will a victory by Barack Obama raise the probability of a DPJ victory by reminding Japanese voters of the possibility of change through the ballot box?)

A DPJ victory will undoubtedly be cathartic, a dramatic break with five decades of LDP rule. But catharsis alone does not make a revolution. It may be that the DPJ comes to find beating the LDP easier than governing in its stead. Japan's problems will not be fixed in one, two, or four years. The broken budget remains the first priority for any Japanese government. But as Mr. Ozawa argues, this is an important turning point, Japan's best chance to chart a new course. The DPJ, for all its flaws, is Japan's best chance to right itself.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No honeymoon for Aso

Voting will begin today in the LDP's presidential election, which looks to be little more than a coronation for Aso Taro.

Ishikawa prefecture had its vote on Saturday, and it appears that Ishikawa will give all three of its votes to Mr. Aso. I expect Ishikawa will be only the first of many sweeps to come.

But will it matter at all? In the early days of the LDP race, it seemed possible that Mr. Aso might be able to heal the LDP's wounds as if by magic, as if simply by having the five candidates stand side by side in apparent agreement on the problems facing Japan (and their solutions), the public would forget the years of incompetent governance and re-embrace the LDP and its "charismatic" new leader.

Alas, the fairy tale is not to be.

Mr. Aso had apparently hoped that he could do like Fukuda Yasuo, but better, using his popularity to unite the whole party in his government, heal the rift with Komeito, and then wheel about to face down Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ, first in the Diet, then in a general election campaign to come shortly after Mr. Aso bested the DPJ in Diet deliberations on a supplement budget containing an economic stimulus package. Key to his plan was ensuring that all voices were represented in his cabinet, to which end he stated that he would be happy to include his four competitors in his cabinet and party leadership.

Koike Yuriko, however, has thrown water on his scheme, declaring that the "policy differences are too great" to be included in one cabinet. The others might be more willing than Ms. Koike to join with Mr. Aso, but I doubt it. With that statement Ms. Koike has made clear that for all the cordiality in the LDP's campaign events, the party is no less divided than it was on Sept. 1, when Mr. Fukuda resigned. Mr. Aso's embrace of populism may make some LDP members happy — unlike Mr. Abe, Mr. Aso will come bearing gifts, not words — but there are plenty of LDP members unhappy about his new approach, not least the Koizumi children now on the chopping block when an election comes. Incidentally, if Mr. Aso is unable to form a cabinet that unites the LDP's disparate schools of thought, will he fall back on his conservative allies to form a cabinet?

An election that Mr. Aso doesn't prefer to discuss, perhaps because he's realizing that the much-discussed October 26 election may not leave him enough time to bolster his and the LDP's standing. He singled out Asahi for criticism on this score at a campaign event Friday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, reminding listeners that Asahi doesn't hold the right of dissolving the Diet and calling an election. He insisted that people "should not speak carelessly" about the timing of an election, and made clear that a response to the worsening economy will take priority of holding an election.

As MTC makes clear (welcome back!), all of the talk about economic stimulus may ultimately be irrelevant when the general election comes. There is an unmistakable logic to Mr. Ozawa's recent maneuvers; his coalition, argues MTC, is "an angry, broad-based, below-the-Nagatachō-radar movement," stitching together any and all who have reason to be angry at how the LDP has governed. This coalition provides very little clue to how a DPJ-led coalition government will govern, but that's besides the point. Whether the government calls an election next month or at year's end, there is little Mr. Aso can do to undermine the coalition of the angry, whose grievances are the result of years of neglect or worse on the part of LDP-led governments.

Mr. Aso may be able to blunt the impact of Mr. Ozawa's strategy — certainly better than the alternatives — but ultimately he has little control over his own fate. He will have no more control over his party and his coalition than his predecessor, and he will face potentially unbearable pressure to call an election. There will be no honeymoon for Mr. Aso.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The DPJ and PNP draw closer

Pushing the DPJ to the headlines again for the first time since Prime Minister Fukuda resigned at the start of September, the Democratic Party of Japan and the People's New Party are reportedly close to an agreement to merge. Ozawa Ichiro met with his counterpart Watanuki Tamisuke Tuesday to discuss a merger, and indicated to Mr. Watanuki that he is willing to include a plank in the DPJ manifesto calling for a freeze in the planned sale of government-held shares of the composite companies of the Japan Post group.

The PNP, you may recall, is a product of the 2005 postal reform battle, created when Koizumi Junichiro ousted the postal rebels and dispatched his "assassins" to deprive them of their seats in the 2005 general election, with only some success.

The party has been considerably less visible in the years following its creation, although as a partner of the DPJ its four upper house members are critical to maintaining the opposition's control of the upper house.

Sankei reports that the DPJ executives have conferred and have officially proposed a union to the microparty, which is favorably disposed to the idea. It is less clear what DPJ backbenchers and the party rank-and-file think, but it looks like the DPJ's latest merger is a done deal. (One merger closer to a two-party system?) (This is also yet another blow to Hiranuma Takeo's plans for a new conservative party, the chimera that had everyone talks just under a year ago. The impending election of Aso Taro will be another.)

I can think of a number of theories for why Mr. Ozawa opted to do this, and opted to do this now.

One, this has proved a good way to put the DPJ back in the headlines, although the financial crisis has effectively taken pushed the LDP and the DPJ aside for the time being.

Two, it enables Mr. Ozawa to cement his populist credentials among elderly, rural voters. A glance at the PNP's policy statements shows a party very much in tune with Mr. Ozawa's approach of the past several years: criticism of "market fundamentalism" and an economy in which the strong devour the weak, criticism of the Koizumi theatrical politics that led to the party's creation in the first place, and support for all manner of traditional LDP supporters (farmers, small- and mid-sized businesses, etc.). With Aso Taro's copying Ozawa Ichiro's approach, Mr. Ozawa may be upping his commitment to a populist pitch to voters in stagnant rural districts to head off Mr. Aso before he takes over officially (as seems certain).

A third, related theory is that Mr. Ozawa did this because he could. I can imagine that the DPJ's young turks are dreading having to defend this alliance to their urban constituents, seeing as how this is literally a merger with the newly former LDP. But after having effectively stared down all potential rivals, Mr. Ozawa may have calculated — correctly in my view — that he can get away with quite a lot; the young turks will not defect.

Fourth, and again related to DPJ internal dynamics, Mr. Ozawa may perceive this as a way to bolster his position in the party. The PNP may not be numerous, but they bring Mr. Ozawa some reinforcements in his battle to make the case that his approach to the next general election is correct, that the election will be won or lost in constituencies that have long supported the LDP.

Lastly, Mr. Ozawa may actually share the PNP's beliefs.

These theories are not mutually exclusive, and not one explanation may be correct. And the merger may ultimately not make a difference in the general election, seeing as how it merely reinforces Mr. Ozawa's approach. It does make clear, however, that Japan has come a long way from September 2005. Structural reform is dead. If Mr. Aso is elected, the LDP and the DPJ will be battling over who can promise the more convincing plan to revitalize rural areas, presumably through infusions of public funds.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Koizumi speaks

Just one day after telling an audience of young reformers that he would not say who he was supporting, it appears that Koizumi Junichiro has come out in support of Koike Yuriko, the woman who he elevated to his cabinet shortly after her arrival in the LDP.

Sankei reports that Mr. Koizumi met Friday with Koike lieutenants Eto Seishiro, Tanabe Tsutomu, and Ono Jiro — all solders in the Koizumi revolution — and told them that Ms. Koike has his vote, and that he thinks she can beat Ozawa Ichiro.

He may even believe the latter.

I do not think that Mr. Koizumi's endorsement will be enough to swing the election.

First, I think that Mr. Aso's band of eighty is more disciplined than Mr. Koizumi's club of 83. I think the bulk of the LDP is embittered towards Mr. Koizumi and his legacy — for good reason, seeing as how Mr. Koizumi promised to destroy the LDP, which had worked so well at enriching many of its members, their constituents, and their supporters for so long — and has made no secret of a desire to stamp out the remnants of Mr. Koizumi's legacy. Hence the decision to readmit the postal rebels. And the decision to withhold support for the reelection campaigns of the Koizumi children.

It is Mr. Aso who now best embodies the LDP desire for — in Mr. Ozawa's favorite phrase — change so that things remain the same.

Of course Mr. Koizumi may yet have the last laugh.

Aso seals the deal, and the LDP pats itself on the back

The campaign to replace Fukuda Yasuo as LDP president and prime minister officially began on Wednesday, with the five candidates — Aso Taro, Koike Yuriko, Yosano Kaoru, Ishihara Nobuteru, and Ishiba Shigeru — holding a joint press conference before traveling the country to campaign.

The press conference makes clear just how farcical claims of the LDP's "open" election are. Yes, there are five candidates vying for the slot, compared with Ozawa Ichiro's uncontested reelection as DPJ president. But for all the talk of an open election, the candidates papered over points of disagreement, refused to commit to any concrete steps to fix the budget, and took turns criticizing Mr. Ozawa for his failures to consult, explain, and persuade — and his party's lack of experience at governing (because the LDP's track record suggests that experience correlates strongly with performance, right?).

In reality, the LDP couldn't have wished for a better way to see off the bad taste left by Mr. Fukuda. The LDP gets a chance to show up the DPJ — see! this is what intraparty democracy looks like — without there being little chance of genuine and open disagreement or the possibility that something unexpected might happen (see below). If I were more conspiratorially minded, I would think that the candidates were hand-picked to maximize the PR advantage to the LDP. (In the same vein, reading that Ms. Koike was forced to close her campaign office for an ambiguous problem with the real estate agent really makes me wonder whether there is something to this — did she not get the memo that she's in the race as window dressing, and therefore someone had to send the message that she shouldn't take the election too seriously?) But I'm not inclined to think that the LDP elders coordinated the campaign of five. Nakagawa Hidenao is certainly taking the race seriously enough. It appears that the LDP just got lucky: Mr. Fukuda resigned just in time for the election to coincide precisely with the DPJ's uncontested election and enough of the LDP's younger, more popular figures feel they stand a chance against Mr. Aso, helping the LDP look more dynamic and in touch than both Mr. Ozawa — that old dictator — and the hapless Mr. Fukuda.

But there really is little doubt that Mr. Aso will win the premiership.

Polls of both LDP Diet members and party rank-and-file suggest that Mr. Aso may be in a position to secure a majority in the first round, obviating the need for a second. Asahi surmises that it is probable that he will do so, looking at the support for Mr. Aso in the prefectural chapters and in the parliamentary party. Asahi projects that Mr. Aso will receive at least 63 of the 141 votes from prefectural chapters, with a final tally considerably more than 63. Suggesting the strength of Mr. Aso's grassroots support, Asahi expects that Mr. Aso will win three votes even in prefectural chapters distributing votes proportionally.

Asahi also expects him to receive a majority of LDP parliamentarians, but given that the preferences of faction leaders no longer determine how faction members vote, it is harder to predict exactly how the parliamentary vote will break down. It is clear, however, that we are witnessing the first officially post-factional LDP presidential election: the Tsushima (second largest), Koga (third largest), Yamasaki (fourth largest), and the Komura (eighth largest) factions have announced that their members will be free to vote for whichever candidate they prefer, and with the Machimura faction divided between supporters of Mr. Aso and Ms. Koike, the Machimura faction is effectively following the same rule. Yomiuri estimates that Mr. Aso has the support of forty percent of the 386 Diet members (approximately 155 members), meaning that he needs only 109 more votes to win the election in the first round. It's possible that he will receive those 109 votes from the prefectural chapters alone, which will in turn bolster his parliamentary votes (undoubtedly some Diet members will be swayed by the results from their home prefectures).

Public opinion polls confirm Mr. Aso's support. Yomiuri finds that Mr. Aso is the only candidate but Mr. Ishihara who beats Mr. Ozawa in face-to-face matchup, and by a large margin: 59% to 27.6%. Mr. Ishihara barely edges out Mr. Ozawa, 43.5% to 40.1%, while the other three all trail Mr. Ozawa by more than ten percentage points. Asahi's nationwide poll found Mr. Aso to be the most appropriate candidate for the premiership with 42% support, with Mr. Ishihara once again ranking second with 10%. Mr. Aso won points for his perceived "ability to get things done."

But no matter how sizeable Mr. Aso's victory, he will be under pressure to perform immediately. As already noted by Ken Worsley and elaborated further by Mary Stokes at Nouriel Roubini's Global EconoMonitor, Japan's economy shrank by 3% annualized in the second quarter, instead of the original figure of 2.4%. The outlook for the new government is bleak — get the economy growing again, only to get the economy healthy enough to take measures to fix the budget deficit (i.e., a consumption tax increase, which all the LDP candidates see as necessary at some point in time).

Even if the new government passes a stimulus package as a prelude to an election which it then proceeds to win, it will be in an unenviable position. The DPJ may prefer that it lose the next election, leaving an Aso government with the tasks of battling the recession and then the budget.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Election envy?

Ozawa Ichiro has effectively been elected to a third term as leader of the DPJ; not surprisingly, no one else filed to run in the party leadership election.

At the same time, the LDP field has widened to five candidates, each with markedly different viewpoints.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Ozawa's uncontested reelection has been unfavorably contrasted with the LDP's heavily contested election in the political press, leading me to wonder whether the LDP field expanded largely to show up the DPJ. (I don't seriously believe this, but I'm sure that LDP elders aren't complaining.) Mainichi describes the DPJ as "jealous" of the LDP's election. And a poll of LDP prefectural chapter chiefs found that they believe that the party's image will be enhanced by an "open" election.

Should the DPJ really be jealous of the LDP? If the LDP's election is fiercely contested, it is only because the party has been drifting aimlessly in the two years since Koizumi Junichiro left office, leaving the party fundamentally divided on the most important policy questions facing the government. With Mr. Abe's emphasis on Japanese "culture war" issues and Mr. Fukuda's political balancing act, the LDP has punted on pressing issues like the budget deficit, the persistent pensions problem, education reform, the road construction budget, rural stagnation and on and on. So yes, perhaps the LDP will have a spirited debate in the weeks leading up to the party presidential election. But why should the LDP be praised for this debate when for the past two years it has avoided forging a consensus and addressing the aforementioned issues?

For all the self-congratulation about the debate the LDP will have over the next two weeks, the party is still prepared to back Aso Taro and his "populist" agenda, of which rival candidate Ishihara Nobuteru has said, "If we unify under Secretary-General Aso, we will be the same as Ozawa's DPJ."

Mr. Aso has released his policy platform to allow voters to judge for themselves. Resting on the principles of (1) a society that can feel at ease, (2) an aged society with vitality, (3) robust regions, and (4) a country open to the world, Mr. Aso has promised tax cuts in the short-term, regulatory reform, and support for high technology R & D, as well as assistance to the "working poor." Mr. Aso is not so much copying Mr. Ozawa as answering the critique of the Ozawa DPJ that led to the LDP's defeat in 2007. As argued by Morita Minoru in his Jiminto no shuen (The End of the LDP), the LDP under Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe turned a blind eye towards stagnation in rural Japan, neglect that Mr. Ozawa has successfully exploited in his campaigning in the countryside.

I've argued before and I will keep arguing it: Mr. Aso deserves credit for his response to his defeat in last year's party election and the LDP's defeat in July 2007. He is trying to find a way to recreate the LDP as a national party, promising assistance to stagnant regions and help to the forgotten (young) men and women in urban areas. Whether that will be a successful general election coalition remains to be seen, but Mr. Aso is at least putting his popularity to work in an attempt to address the most pressing problems facing Japan (all but the budget problem, which under a Prime Minister Aso will go unaddressed for the indefinite future).

Foreign observers must not let their distaste for Mr. Aso's cultural and historical views blind them when assessing Mr. Aso's strengths and vision. He has learned from the Abe disaster — and from Mr. Ozawa's politicking. He may be the only candidate in the LDP field who combines a popular touch with an agenda that is easily explained and appeals to urban, suburban, and rural voters. If any candidate can deprive the DPJ of the votes to win a majority or a plurality large enough to support a DPJ-led coalition, Mr. Aso is it. If he wins the LDP election, he will still face an uphill battle against a DPJ that has benefited from years of LDP missteps and is led by a leader capable of exploiting them, but with Mr. Aso the election will be closer than otherwise. The national appeal of Koizumism is limited in the absence of the master prestidigitator, undermining the Koike and Ishihara candidacies; Mr. Yosano is a non-starter for his emphasis on fiscal shock therapy; and Mr. Ishiba's views on issues other than defense policy are largely unknown, making his candidacy little more than an effort to raise his profile as a future leader.

Given the strength of Mr. Aso's grassroots support, it's possible that he could clinch the presidency in the first round of voting. Will the parliamentary LDP dare to reject Mr. Aso should he ride into Tokyo with the overwhelming support of the prefectural rank-and-file? And should the election go to a runoff, Mr. Aso will likely be helped by a decision to permit prefectural chapter representatives responsible for the 141 prefectural votes to cast ballots in the second round.

And then the general election, which could be held as early as November. Looking at the map of places where Mr. Aso ran strongly in 2007 and where the DPJ won in 2007, there is not inconsiderable overlap.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The field gets crowded

On Friday I noted that the LDP was shaping up with four candidates.

Not long after I wrote that post, however, it became clear that the field would expand before long, in large part because younger LDP members like Yamauchi Koichi are unhappy with their choices.

As a result, Ishiba Shigeru (51), the former defense minister, Yamamoto Ichita (50), the rockin' upper house member from Gunma, and possibly Tanahashi Yasufumi (45), an LDP young turk, have each declared their intention to contest the Sept. 22 election.

It is unclear which among them will be able to muster the twenty endorsements necessary to run.

The bigger the field, the greater the chance of a surprise, especially since all forty-seven prefectural chapters will be holding elections to determine how to cast their three votes. At the very least, it raises the likelihood of a runoff election should no candidate receive a majority in the first round of voting. (For a look at the implications of the LDP's shift to popular, "open" voting, read this post by Jun Okumura.)

But looking at the shape of the field, the absence of another conservative from the True Conservative Policy Research Group is telling. The conservatives behind Mr. Aso are remarkably disciplined compared to their ideological rivals. Considering the incredible amount of disunity in Japanese political organizations (a trait, I should note, that is by no means unique to Japanese organizations), the lack of public disharmony among the LDP's conservatives is nothing short of remarkable. It could well make the difference in the outcome of the presidential election.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The LDP field coalesces

Despite a political situation that has already consumed the careers of two LDP prime ministers — cowards, says Newsweek's Christian Caryl, and he has a point — there are now four candidates running to serve as the next LDP president and prime minister.

I think Aso Taro remains the front runner, for reasons enunciated here and here.

Arguably his position is strengthened by the proliferation of anti-Aso candidates.

Not only will Mr. Aso be running against Koike Yuriko, the "structural reform" candidate, but Yosano Kaoru, the leading "fiscal reconstructionist," and Ishihara Nobuteru, a veteran of Koizumi's cabinets and briefly LDP policy chief under Abe Shinzo, have also announced their candidacies.

Each has significant liabilities, effectively summarized by Yamauchi Koichi, the blogging first-term LDP lower house member:

Mr. Aso supports abandoning fiscal discipline to provide economic stimulus for suffering citizens.

Mr. Yosano is of the "fiscal reconstruction school, the consumption tax increase school."

As for Mr. Ishihara, "it is reported that he is of the structural reform category," but on political reform he approved the return of postal rebels to the LDP.

And about Ms. Koike, the candidate who I would expect him to support, he writes, "Ms. Koike is of the structural reform school and is Japan's first female prime ministerial candidate — she has a newness and I have a relatively good impression of her. But regarding economic policy and administrative reform, I still don't have a good understanding of Ms. Koike's thinking."

While foreigners know Mr. Aso best for his history of outrageous statements and his nationalism, he clearly stands above his rivals in this race.

Ms. Koike is an unknown, her candidacy perhaps more a reflection of Koizumi nostalgia (speaking of which, Mr. K has been curiously absent during the past week) among the media than a durable base of support from either her fellow LDP Diet members or the party's grassroots.

Mr. Yosano is saddled with the burden of being the only LDP leader with the spine to speak of a consumption tax hike, which might be necessary down the road but is a non-starter within the LDP for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Ishihara perhaps stands the best chance of upsetting Mr. Aso. A representative from Tokyo, he might be able to pry away Mr. Aso's urban supporters. He is articulate but has a lower profile than Mr. Aso — Mr. Aso can and will claim that he stands the best chance of stopping Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ in its tracks (by stealing a page from Mr. Ozawa's playbook), citing polls like this one from Asahi showing substantial support for Mr. Aso as the next prime minister. But who will be voting for Mr. Ishihara? Will Ms. Koike and Mr. Ishihara split the reformist vote? Will he be able to draw conservatives away from Mr. Aso?

Mr. Aso has the most clearly defined base of support, and quite possibly the supporters most eager to win (or reclaim) the premiership. He has concluded — like Mr. Ozawa — that the next general election will be won in the LDP's old rural heartland, and it will be won by promising as much as possible to rural voters and mentioning structural reform as little as possible. He will ride that strategy into the premiership, and, he hopes, into a general election mandate.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Aso Taro has learned from Mr. Abe's disastrous government. Whether he is genuinely concerned about the hardships experienced by the Japanese people or not, Mr. Aso knows that addressing them is the only way for a government to last. It is also the only way for a prime minister to indulge his interest in foreign policy. Accordingly, Mr. Aso has been silent on foreign policy and may even be willing to sacrifice the refueling mission to shore up the LDP's ties with Komeito to bolster the coalition government.

Do not underestimate Aso Taro.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fault lines

Does anyone think that the Machimura faction, that 89-member monster of a faction that sits at the intersection of the LDP's divisions between "neo-liberal" reformers, party leaders, and ideological conservatives, will survive this party election?

Following up on both his previous dismissal of Koike Yuriko's prospects and his endorsement of Aso Taro, Mori Yoshiro said of Nakagawa Hidenao's promotion — he being one of the faction's three titular leaders — of Ms. Koike, "The position of the daihyo sewanin [Mr. Nakagawa's difficult-to-translate title] of pushing (Ms. Koike) to the fore is a bit of a problem."

"He says 'a candidate must stand on behalf of the reformists,' but is not Secretary-General Aso a reformist?"

Whatever you want to call Mr. Aso — I agree with Jun Okumura that it is far too simplistic to dismiss Mr. Aso with the word "conservative," not because he isn't, but because the label conceals more than it reveals — the LDP's reform school clearly does not view him as one of their own and is desperate for an alternative. Indeed, their desperation can be seen in the fears of the Koizumi kids, as they sense that Fukuda Yasuo's resignation and the chaos it has engendered can only hurt them in the eyes of the public. For the Koizumi kids, this party leadership election may represent one last chance to pick a leader who will enable them to go before their constituents and declare that reform lives.

But the reform school is not the only LDP group desperately seeking an anyone-but-Aso candidate.

Yamasaki Taku, Kato Koichi, and Koga Makoto, three doyens of the LDP's once-dominant mainstream conservatism (which in the contemporary context makes them the LDP's liberals, in Mr. Kato's own reckoning), met Wednesday to discuss an anti-Aso candidate. It is worth noting that despite Messrs. Yamasaki and Koga being faction heads, the article notes that they spoke as individuals, implying that they were not speaking on behalf of their factions.

It seems that we are witnessing a post-faction LDP presidential election, less than a year after the Fukuda election in which conventional wisdom proclaimed that the factions were back in control. This campaign is already breaking down along ideological lines, not factional lines. As I've argued previously, the relevant groupings are not the factions but the ideological study groups and associations that cross factional lines. Mr. Aso's campaign rests not on his twenty-member faction — which conveniently has enough members to nominate him as a candidate — but on the party-wide network of conservatives that backed his candidacy last year in defiance of their faction heads and who subsequently organized (in part) under the aegis of Nakagawa Shoichi's "True Conservative Policy Research Group." Similarly, Mr. Nakagawa's Koizumians, while clustered within the Machimura faction, can also be found in other factions and among the party's independent members. The liberals, such as they exist, are also found in more than one faction.

Seeing how this LDP presidential election campaign is unfolding, I think it is safe to assume that the recommendations of faction heads will have little or no role in determining how the LDP's parliamentarians vote on Sept. 22. Ideology, not faction will determine who the LDP chooses.

I still think Mr. Aso will emerge at the top based both on his support at the grassroots and the strength of the conservatives in the contemporary LDP — who are hungry to reclaim what they lost when Abe Shinzo resigned, but the LDP that emerges on Sept. 22 will not be the same LDP that existed at the moment of Mr. Fukuda's resignation.

UPDATE: I should add that in addition to the three major ideological groupings there is the cautious bulk of the LDP parliamentary party, which will give its allegiance to no camp but the one that appears to be the most beneficial for their electoral prospects. I think Mr. Mori, with his mission of preserving LDP dominance, best speaks for this segment, which is why I think Mr. Aso will prevail. Mr. Aso may be the less risky choice — at least for the average LDP member — come the next general election.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gauging Aso's chances

For the second year in a row, Aso Taro is the early frontrunner to seize the LDP leadership.

As noted yesterday, whether he wins this year will depend on his gaining an additional 68 votes over his 2007 total. One way to do that will be to build significantly on the 65 of 141 prefectural chapter votes that he received in September 2007.

Both Sankei and Asahi have published snap surveys of the prefectural chapter executives, providing a glimpse of how the LDP grassroots are looking at the chaos in Tokyo.

Sankei's survey found that twenty-two of forty-seven chapters indicated their support for Mr. Aso; the remaining twenty-five are waiting to see how the race unfolds. As far as the reasons for supporting Mr. Aso, Ibaraki's executives pointed to what could make the difference: his desire "to continue to discuss economic problems thoroughly." Presumably this is an oblique reference to his populism, to his claim to want to address the hardships of Japan's rural regions, an argument that would undercut Koike Yuriko, who would run as the candidate of Koizumi-Nakagawa (Hidenao) reformism.

Asahi recorded slightly more support, with twenty-five chapters — a majority — indicating their support for Mr. Aso. Asahi does not offer a complete list, but of the supporting prefectures listed, most of them gave either all three or two of three votes to Mr. Aso last year. Asahi also found that there is only slight support (eight chapters) for calling a general election soon after the party election.

Given that as of last year only four prefectural chapters chose a candidate without a vote, whether among registered party members or local leaders, these surveys tell us little about how the vote will break down. They might even understate the support for Mr. Aso among the LDP rank-and-file.

In fact, looking at the distribution of Mr. Aso's support last year it is difficult to see where Ms. Koike or another LDP reformist would succeed. In the four prefectures of Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama, Mr. Aso defeated Mr. Fukuda by a margin of 61,766 votes to 48,491 votes. Mr. Fukuda barely won in Saitama (444 votes out of 20,553 cast), while Mr. Aso won with sizeable to impressive margins of victory in the other three. (His most impressive victory nationwide was in Ehime, however, where he received 12,598 votes to Mr. Fukuda's 1,160.) In short not only is Mr. Aso popular, but he's popular in places where a reformist candidate would expect to run strong.

A year later, with the LDP in shambles and Mr. Aso riding high, he will likely build upon the bedrock of support that came out for him last year despite the overwhelming support within the LDP establishment for Mr. Fukuda.

At this point there is no sure thing — there's still a week until candidates have to declare — but Mr. Aso's position is strong, and with the party's turning away from Koizumian "neo-liberalism" it will probably take another populist to defeat Mr. Aso.

Koike prepares

The LDP is finalizing the schedule for its election: September 22, the day following the DPJ's reelection of Ozawa Ichiro.

While it still looks as if Aso Taro will claim the prize, it appears that his election will not go nearly as smoothly as Mr. Ozawa's.

Mainichi reports that Koike Yuriko has expressed her desire to run, and has begun making preparations for a campaign, running as the candidate of Koizumi and Nakagawa (Hidenao).

Given the latter's increasing isolation within the LDP, I wonder whether Ms. Koike's prospects are realistic.

Mr. Aso simply has to build upon his strong showing last September to win; Ms. Koike has to build a national organization to compete with Mr. Aso from scratch. Recall that Mr. Aso managed to win 197 votes of a total 529 votes in last year's election, putting him 68 short of victory. He won 65 of 141 prefectural chapter votes, a number he will likely increase as a result of his travels around the country. He surprisingly received 132 Diet member votes last year — surprising because it showed the extent to which faction members bucked their leaders. A similar trend could redound to Ms. Koike's favor this year, but it is unlikely that there are enough Koizumians to push Ms. Koike over the top. Ms. Koike also lacks the support of the Mori Yoshiro, the punative head of her own faction, the Machimura faction. Mr. Mori will undoubtedly lean heavily on faction members to support Mr. Aso, if they aren't already doing so.

But if Mr. Nakagawa backs Ms. Koike anyway, this election campaign will likely mean the end of the Machimura faction.

Surely Mr. Nakagawa is aware of the aforementioned figures about Mr. Aso's performance. Surely he knows how difficult it will be to upset Mr. Aso, who has used the past year to prepare systematically for this coming election.

Perhaps Ms. Koike's campaign is intended as a pretext for the departure of Mr. Nakagawa and his followers from the LDP entirely, a last stand before bolting. Mr. Aso will win, only to find his party shrinking beneath his feet.

Far-fetched perhaps, but less and less far-fetched every day.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The final word on Fukuda

The word in the Japanese media is that Fukuda Yasuo's resignation came as a complete surprise, reportedly made even without consulting with his wife.

The LDP was blindsided. The public, it seems, is angry over Mr. Fukuda's "irresponsibility." The DPJ has already called for a general election.

I was not among those who wrote Mr. Fukuda off last year as a mere caretaker. I gave him credit for being a better politician than he appeared and not simply a reversion to the old LDP. I still think that. But I'm convinced that Mr. Fukuda was the right man at the wrong time.

His various public statements, including his first policy address, his speech to the LDP national convention in January, his second policy address, and his May foreign policy address all evince a clear understanding of the nature of Japan's crisis. Mr. Fukuda clearly understands how Japan has to change; indeed, he may understand better than just about everyone in the LDP, Mr. Koizumi included. (I'm inclined to agree with Masuzoe Yoichi's description of Mr. Koizumi as a better destroyer than builder — Japan at this point needs the latter just as much as it needs the former.) When he spoke of the hardships facing the Japanese people, I did not question his sincerity.

The problem is that he faced a political situation that would have stumped all but the ablest of politicians, which Mr. Fukuda is not. I think that he would have been a huge success had he followed Mr. Koizumi in 2006, being more of a builder than Mr. Koizumi and probably being better liked by the public than Mr. Koizumi. I don't mean loved or admired in the way that Mr. Koizumi was, like a rock idol, but rather someone who the public would have trusted to listen to them, to be frank with them, and to do his best to address his concerns and begin the hard work of building a new Japanese system for the twenty-first century. Even Mr. Koizumi, for all his popularity, did not enjoy a relationship like that with the public — as suggested by scornful remarks about his policy legacy.

But Mr. Fukuda took over in September 2007, after Abe Shinzo had already reduced his inheritance to rubble. The agenda facing Mr. Fukuda was more daunting than the previous year, and he faced more obstacles to governing than Mr. Abe had. Mr. Fukuda had to deal with a resurgent DPJ in control of the upper house, but he also had to command an LDP deeply divided over its future in the wake of Mr. Koizumi and the LDP's 2007 election defeat (the former being in some way a cause of the latter) and soothe an agitated Komeito. He failed to overcome all of these challenges. He may well have made them worse: the DPJ looks poised to win the next election, the LDP is no less divided than last year, and Komeito may be on the brink of breaking with the LDP. Press reports will focus on the role of the divided Diet (i.e.,, democracy) in undermining his government, but the LDP deserves at least as much blame. Throughout his tenure Mr. Fukuda had to battle with his own party about priorities, policy, and political strategy. His victories were scarce, and, as he made clear in his statement last night, his frustrations many.

Yes, Mr. Fukuda failed, but success is likely to have eluded most other politicians. The reality is that the LDP as it exists today is incapable of governing Japan.

Mr. Fukuda's resignation may not just be the trigger for a general election; it may be the catalyst for a political realignment. Sonoda Hiroyuki yesterday called for the creation of a new party with part of the DPJ (presumably that also means part of the LDP will be involved too). The manner in which the LDP elects Mr. Fukuda's successor will be crucial for determining whether and how the party survives. I have written that Mr. Aso is likely to be the successor, but that is by no means guaranteed. There is talk of a Koizumi return, although I suspect that at this point Mr. Koizumi would rather return at the head of his own party instead of resurrecting the corpse of the LDP. For the moment there is no apparent rival to Mr. Aso (the foreign press is talking of Koike Yuriko, but I don't think she'll be able to repeat Mr. Koizumi's 2001 feat). But should Mr. Aso somehow not win the prize, I don't think Mr. Aso and his conservative comrades will be long for the LDP. Similarly, Mr. Aso's election could alienate some LDP members — like Mr. Nakagawa and the other remaining Koizumians — to the point of forcing them to leave the LDP and form their own party.

This is the shipwreck that Mr. Fukuda has left behind, though little fault of his own. The LDP is deeply divided along lines of how Japan should be governed, and the differing schools of thought seem disinclined to put the good of the LDP before their individual agendas.

The result may be that we are nearing the end of Japan's long bakumatsu. After years of watching the old system decay — and be prematurely declared dead — the ancien regime may finally be dead.

Before the year is up the DPJ may get its first chance to form a government. The voters seem to be in a hanging mood, especially after a second consecutive LDP prime minister resigned surprisingly. This act will by no means transform Japan overnight — nothing will do that — but it will be the catharsis that signals the final break with LDP rule. Even if the LDP returns to power in the future, it will invariably be a different LDP, one humbled by its time in opposition and splintered.

For that, Mr. Fukuda should at least deserve a footnote when the history of the present era is written. He may not have delivered much — although it's possible that the Fukuda Doctrine in foreign policy may outlast his government — but he at least pointed the way that Japan must go if it is to succeed in the twenty-first century. That's certainly more than one could say of his predecessor.

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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.

Fukuda resigns

The autumn extraordinary session of the Diet has been looking quite similar to the 2007 extraordinary session of the Diet.

We can discuss whether history rhymes or repeats, but one thing is clear:

Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo has resigned, less than one year into his tenure as prime minister.

The questions on the table are obvious. Will public outcry against a third prime minister without an election lead the LDP to call an early election? Will Aso Taro be ushered into power in the hope that his popularity might buy the LDP some time before rushing into an election?

The reasons seem more apparent. Going into the new Diet session, Mr. Fukuda has had control of neither his party nor his governing coalition. He has been pressured to make decisions against his will — such as the date for the opening of the Diet — and stymied in his efforts to move an agenda.

Do we stand at the brink of a second 1993?