Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anything goes

As Prime Minister Aso Taro prepares to travel to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, he leaves behind a political situation that is nothing short of chaos.

Asahi has published a snap poll that found that 71% of respondents — and 76% of self-described independents among the respondents — believe that Aso should resign immediately, while a growing number of respondents favors an election being called quickly. Meanwhile, DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro's edge over Aso in category of who ought to be prime minister continues to grow, as Ozawa gained six points and now is favored by 45% of respondents compared to Aso's 19%. The cabinet's approval rating dipped only slightly, falling one point to 13%, but that's surely cold comfort for the prime minister.

More important than public opinion polls, however, is the mounting dissent within the LDP from all corners. Perhaps the most significant development is Koizumi Junichiro's announcement that he will absent himself from a lower house revote on the bill that provides funding for the government's stimulus payment plan. Yamamoto Ichita, a reformist who nevertheless intends to vote for the bill, argues that Koizumi's act is primarily a protest against Aso's comments on postal reform. Whatever the former prime minister's reasoning, however, it has prompted a wave of criticism from cabinet members, who have called Koizumi irresponsible, even though — as MTC noted — a Koizumi abstention would actually lower the threshhold for the bill's passage as it would take one more rebel to defeat it. And yet the LDP is considering punishing Koizumi for his insubordination, which presumably is a sign of how much the party fears the still-popular Koizumi, as party leaders apparently feel the need to punish him so that his example does not inspire young reformists to rebel.

In the process the LDP has reached a nadir of sorts, threatening to punish the man largely responsible for the government's supermajority that will ensure the passage of a bill opposed by a vast majority of the public and, at some level, a not inconsequential number of LDP members.

Is there anybody in charge here?

Surely the bad publicity resulting from punishing Koizumi in one form or another will have more severe consequences for the LDP than letting Koizumi abstain unmolested. Surely potential rebels may give some more thought to defecting now that the party has threatened the former prime minister. If the LDP punishes Koizumi it will naturally be a slap on the wrist, but considering the target it is a slap that will resonate.

At the same time, there may be a movement gathering steam against the prime minister, but then again, maybe not. The biggest handicap is that the movement has no standard bearer. Ishiba Shigeru and Noda Seiko, members of the Aso cabinet who have been mentioned as possible successors, have both denied that they are interested in the premiership, which may or may not be true, but as long as they're unwilling to do anything to overthrow the prime minister they will most likely not get the chance no matter how interested they are in the role. It is unlikely that the motley assortment of nine first and second term Diet members led by Matsunami Kenta — the "third generation club to reform the LDP" — will be the author of Aso's downfall.

The opposition of Nakagawa Hidenao, who warns that Aso is rapidly losing the confidence of LDP backbenchers, and, increasingly, Mori Yoshiro, is more serious. For the moment, Mori is not prepared to act against the prime minister as doing so would jeopardize the passage of the budget, but his opposition to Aso's leading the LDP into the next general election is out in the open.

At the same time, however, it is unclear what Aso's opponents can do to oust him. Back in the waning days of the Fukuda cabinet I speculated about Fukuda Yasuo's nuclear option, calling an election should the party move against him. As events transpired, the situation did not reach that level of desperation, as Fukuda yielded without a fight. Something tells me, however, that Aso won't be nearly as reluctant as his predecessor.

I think Aso has a greater sense of mission, a feeling that he is the man for the job and that if he can't do it, no one can. Not having Abe's weak constitution and Fukuda's lack of fighting spirit, it is difficult to see Aso leave office willing, public and party opposition not withstanding. Indeed, he seems almost impervious to the criticism buffeting his government — at a press conference Thursday he said that the criticism is healthy. At the same press conference, however, he also sent a signal to the LDP leadership that I am certain that no one missed. Asked about calling a general election, Aso said that of course the budget and economic stimulus come first, but he also said that he would call an election by himself, i.e. without consulting with the party, whose leaders undoubtedly share Yamasaki Taku's assessment that the party cannot contest an election as long as its support is as weak as it is today. Aso, it seems, will use the nuclear option should he face a rebellion within the party. (Precisely the scenario hoped for by the DPJ.)

In short, things are falling apart. Even as the ship of state sinks due to the storm roaring through the Japanese economy, the prime minister is at war with his own party, which is at war with itself, at odds with the opposition, and abandoned by the public.

There is no reason to expect this situation to change before a general election, even if the LDP somehow manages to nudge Aso out without his calling an election.


AC said...

"In the process the LDP has reached a nadir of sorts, threatening to punish the man largely responsible for the government's supermajority that will ensure the passage of a bill opposed by a vast majority of the public and, at some level, a not inconsequential number of LDP members."

Ironic, no? I'd replace "largely" with "wholly," but that's just a niggle.

Yes, when the LDP is talking about punishing Koizumi, we are truly in "last days of Saigon" territory. I hope your faith in the DPJ is warranted, because they will likely be running things within the year. I fear, however, that it is not, though I'd love to be wrong.

Tobias Harris said...


You're probably right, but I'm skeptical of monocausality.

I'm not without my doubts, but obviously I don't think things are quite as bad as people make them out to be.

Tim said...

The DPJ will implode. What we are witnessing is connected with the economic quagmire caused by Koizumi's US-based reforms. The Washington Consensus crowd of Summer's and his ilk have really gummed up the works. This is only going to be resolved by remaking the system (not only in Japan that is) so that more people share in the wealth. As it stands now, people are getting less and less, while the elite bumbles without a plan. This crisis is huge and we are living in extraordinary times that will take a lot more imagination and a lot more public participation. The elites do not have the answer. The government is us.

Tobias Harris said...


I think you point to something important, which is that for all the talk of reform by Japanese elites, they still look back to the Meiji Restoration — a top-down, elite-driven revolution — as their model. Some talk of popular change and empowering the public (this is one of Ozawa's themes going back some time now), but the political class as a whole seems to have little idea of how to yield the public, and the public seems unsure of what to do.

AC said...

What's very telling about the DPJ is that, even with the economy in complete freefall and the fissures within the LDP widening into chasms, Ozawa still isn't garnering a simple majority in a poll in which respondents are asked to choose between him and someone with a 13% approval rating.

Noah said...

One wonders why Koizumi doesn't, in the parlance of our times, "grow a pair" and defect to the DPJ.

It would definitely legitimate the opposition party. It would prove that the DPJ is not a one-man show. And it would publicly confirm what many Japanese people already know - that the early-90s reform movement that eventually spawned Koizumi's premiership also spawned the DPJ.

And the DPJ certainly seems no less friendly to Koizumi's ideas than the LDP, at this point. The DPJ opposes bureaucratic rule, supports fiscal federalism, and has a strong new-nationalist streak.

Is Koizumi just unwilling to join a party headed by Ozawa Ichiro?

Tobias Harris said...

I'm guessing that Koizumi does not see the DPJ as a force for reform, seeing as how it is skeptical about postal privatization, in cahoots with the PNP (remember, "the opposition forces"?), and not quite the new-nationalist party that you claim it is, at least not nationalist in the LDP conservative sense of the phrase.

At this point the one point of confluence is probably administrative reform, but since nearly everyone seems to favor administrative reform in one form or another, this is not nearly enough to draw Koizumi in. The DPJ's embrace of anti-"market fundamentalism," to use the common phrase, is presumably more than enough to keep Koizumi and his allies away from the DPJ.

The image of Ozawa as a crypto-LDP old guardsman certainly doesn't help, but the differences are more than a matter of personalities.

Noah said...

So here's an alternate theory: Koizumi has been trying since the early 90s to transform the LDP into something similar to America's Republican party - a domestically laissez-faire, internationally hawkish party. But, despite some progress, he has been continually butting up against the wall of Mori Yohiro and the old guard of pro-bureaucracy entrenched interests.

So Koizumi is hoping that the DPJ wins. When the LDP is out of power, the pork-guzzling special interests will have little reason to stay on board, and will start sucking up to the DPJ instead. This will give Koizumi and his reformers the power to take over the LDP and remake it in the "Republican" image.

How accurate do you think that is?

Anonymous said...

Come on people. Koizumi is not going to defect. In fact, he is lining his son up for a spot with the LEP. His relationships with Mori etal. remain there.

I don't buy into his rhetoric in any case. People look back on K. with rose-tinted glasses because of what has followed. But his support was stalling when he got out, and his reforms were failing. Hashimoto (bur. reform) and Ozawa (electoral reform) are far more substantial figures if we need to point to shakers and movers in the reform stakes.

Anonymous said...

Aso Taro may appear to have more backbone than Fukuda or appear stronger than the weak Abe but I fail to see any ability to solve the formidable problems that Japan faces. He appears have strong views on foreign affairs like the promotion of a league of democracies in Asia and its periphery but since Obama unlike McCain has shown no interest in this idea, it is unlikely that Aso will gain much traction from this passion of his.