According to the poll, Mr. Aso's approval rating fell seventeen points to 31%, while his disapproval rating rose nineteen points to 62%. Twice as many respondents oppose the government's plan for a new stimulus package as support it (56% to 28%). The LDP remains more popular than the DPJ, but I doubt that's of much comfort to either Mr. Aso or the party's backbenchers.
The dramatic fall in support for the government reinforces the notion that the LDP-led government — and with it the Japanese political system — is shuddering to a halt along with the Japanese economy. Mr. Aso's own economy minister has indicated that he stands with the 56% of respondents in the Nikkei poll who oppose the stimulus package, telling the Financial Times that the stimulus package will not work. "The time for endurance has come," he said. Japan, it seems, is at the mercy of the global economy; domestic consumption will not be coming along to stand in for foreign demand for Japanese goods.
Little wonder that Mr. Aso may be losing control of his own party. It seems that the remaining reformists may finally be reorganizing themselves to pressure the prime minister and pull the LDP into the future. The latest sign is that Nakagawa Hidenao has announced the creation of a new study group with the goal of creating "secure foundation accounts" designed to consolidate payments to citizens and free up some 220 billion yen (approximately $2.3 billion) annually to meet the government's social security obligations. The idea is to both cut waste from budgets (including drawing down the so-called "buried treasure" of Kasumigaseki, the special accounts) and streamline administration by directing all government transfer payments (tax rebates, unemployment compensation, welfare payments, farm subsidies, etc.) into a single account.
At his blog Mr. Nakagawa claims that this study group — which apparently includes Koike Yuriko and Watanabe Yoshimi among its twenty members — is about policy, not politics. Why can't it be both? There is clearly unrest stirring within the LDP ranks. The clearest sign is that Mori Yoshiro felt the need to criticize critics of the Aso government in a speech Sunday. Speaking in Hyogo prefecture, Mr. Mori said, "Why only a little more than two months after selecting him do they not feel the need to defend the party president? This is not the Jiminto. This is the Jibunto. They think only of themselves." [For non-Japanese speakers, Mr. Mori was making a pun on the LDP's name, changing the middle character min, from minshu — democracy — into bun, making jibun, oneself, i.e., from the LDP to a party of one.] It's generally a good sign that things are even worse than they appear when Mr. Mori feels the need to discipline party members publicly.
Mr. Nakagawa may claim that he is thinking only of policy, but he doth protest too much. He is on record of having said, "If the dissolution of the lower house [and a general election] are delayed, I will not understand for what purpose Mr. Fukuda Yasuo resigned and a party president election was held" — and he was Ms. Koike's staunch backer against Mr. Aso in September. He clearly knows that forming a study group at this juncture would send a signal to both allies and enemies that he is preparing for both the aftermath of Mr. Aso and the aftermath of a general election, whichever comes first. Yamamoto Ichita writes at his blog that the new study group took his young reformist colleagues by surprise, and that they wrote to him inquiring about what Mr. Nakagawa has in mind. (Mr. Yamamoto responded with what is probably sage advice at this point in time — don't worry about maneuverings within the party, worry about getting reelected. There will be no miracle from above as in 2005.)
It remains unclear how events will unfold. The government continues to reject the idea of a general election any time before the spring. The government is still trying to make the most of the extended Diet session to respond to the crisis, even if it won't be submitting a new stimulus package. Instead Mr. Aso is looking at other measures to dampen the impact of the economic crisis on workers, appealing to big business to hire more unemployed workers in smaller municipalities and new graduates (perhaps hoping to avoid what happened in during the 1990s), regularize irregular workers (instead of sacking them), and to raise wages. I doubt government appeals to the good conscience of companies will work. Meanwhile Ozawa Ichiro has hinted that if Mr. Aso resigns, he will bring the DPJ into a grand coalition comprised of all parties to manage the government until a general election. Whether Mr. Ozawa is serious is irrelevant; he will undoubtedly make up his mind at the spur of the moment. I imagine, however, that his purpose in letting this slip now is an attempt to encourage "opposition forces" within the LDP to overthrow Mr. Aso in order to bring about the grand coalition — a national government to deal with the crisis? — and hasten the approach of a general election and with it a DPJ majority government.
For the moment, Mr. Ozawa's fantasy is unlikely to come to pass. Mr. Aso's predecessors were able to hold on despite crumbling support inside and outside the LDP, and I suspect that Mr. Aso is no less determined than Messrs. Abe and Fukuda to hold on despite adversity.
In the meantime, Japan will continue to sink.