Thursday, August 27, 2009

The LDP on the brink of disaster

The general election campaign is heading into its final days. Despite another two days of campaigning, the LDP and DPJ are mostly battling for seats on the margins — the LDP to keep from falling below 100 seats, the DPJ to reach the magic number of 320, the number required for a supermajority. As the campaign has developed, the LDP's position has only slipped, both in polls and other measurements, such as weakening support from the organizations that have long been part of the LDP's vote-gathering machine. The latest slippage is from the Japanese Medical Association, which does not approve of everything in the DPJ's manifesto but expressed its support for several of the party's proposals, concluding that "the DPJ wrote too much in its manifesto, the LDP wrote too little." There seems to be little doubt which direction the JMA would prefer the parties to err.

After all, the latest round of polls making predictions for seat distributions matched the first round of polls, which astoundingly suggested that the DPJ could win around 300 seats. Asahi's latest poll suggests the possibility of 321 seats for the DPJ and 103 for the LDP. I still suspect something closer to 300, plus or minus twenty seats. But it will be a major victory for the DPJ regardless. (Asahi reports that the DPJ might not have named enough candidates to its PR list in the Kinki and Kyushu blocks, where all but two candidates are running simultaneously as SMD and PR candidates.) Similarly, Mainichi's final poll before the election records the DPJ doubling the LDP in nearly every category: party support, voting intentions in single-member districts, PR voting, although Mainichi notes that it is difficult to project how these figures — different from the party's survey of electoral districts that produced the 320 seat prediction recently — will play out in SMDs.

But unless we're about to witness what would surely be the greatest polling error in a developed democracy, the LDP is less than three days away from suffering a crushing, perhaps even mortal blow in this year's general election.

Not surprisingly the closer the LDP gets the defeat, the more desperate and bizarre the pronouncements of the party's leaders. MTC has already noted Yosano Kaoru's absurd warning of the dangers of one party dictatorship, which probably wins as the single worst justification for LDP rule made during the campaign.

But the remarkable thing about the past month of campaigning is that the LDP is no closer to offering a clear reason why it deserves another mandate than it was when Prime Minister Aso Taro dissolved the Diet last month. The one consistent strain in the party's message has been fear. While the LDP has tried to paint a "positive" message of itself as the "conservative party" — the party which protects that which should be protected (begging the obvious response of "The LDP: the party that will protect everything except your pension") — it has spent more time talking about how the DPJ will, through its flip-flopping and its blurring, make things worse.



And so in Osaka Thursday Aso wheeled out the punning critique he made of the DPJ back in June, although this time he removed the qualifier and said "if there is regime change, there will be a recession." (In Japanese the words for regime change and recession are homophones.) And not only will a DPJ government prompt a recession, but its advent will also be accompanied by "chaos." Aso has apparently also stopped apologizing for his party's poor performance, although it's probably just as well — why would anyone vote for a party whose leader opens by apologizing for the party's performance in office and then proceeds to ask for a new mandate?

Not surprisingly given his engrained optimism, Aso continues to throw all of his energy into the campaign, even as those around him in the party leadership freely admit the difficulties facing the LDP. After all, it won't be their names in the history books associated with the defeat that finally broke LDP rule. But even Aso's resolve may be cracking. In response to a query regarding the fading prospects of meeting the goal of retaining a majority between the LDP and Komeito, he could do nothing more than lamely stress that "compared with before, there are more young people (at campaign speeches), and the response isn't bad." He even paused to diagnose the LDP-Komeito coalition's problems, chalking it up the government parties' failure to "clearly state the appeal held by conservatism" before returning to the party's emphasis on defending that which should be defended. (Funny, I thought a major contributing factor to the LDP's decline since Koizumi Junichiro was Abe Shinzo's desire to explain the appeal of conservatism to the public when all they wanted to hear was that their pension records were safe.)

The question now is what happens to the LDP in the aftermath of the coming disaster. Echoing a point I made in this post, a Shukan Bunshun article suggests that the LDP's factions may be the feature of the LDP to go in the wake of the election, with next month's party presidential election being a truly post-factional contest. With five of eight factions potentially headless, the stage may be set for the factions to break and reorganize into two or three distinct ideological groups, the two most prominent being an "Abe faction" and a "Nakagawa [Hidenao] faction." (As both Abe and Nakagawa are currently in the Machimura faction, naturally the ideological split would begin, as I've argued before, in the Machimura faction, the faction that has controlled the LDP for the past decade.) At the same time, there is still a push to make Masuzoe Yoichi, the minister of health, labor, and welfare and the most popular politician in Japan (and the LDP politician I've seen on "two-shot" posters), Aso's successor. Yamasaki Taku, one of the embattled faction heads, said Tuesday that Masuzoe is the strongest candidate to rebuild the LDP. Of course, it is telling that Yamasaki spoke in favor of Masuzoe seeing as how Yamasaki, one of a handful of LDP liberals, would fit comfortably neither in the Nakagawa group nor the Abe group — not unlike Masuzoe, who is in the upper house, does not belong to a faction, and is relentlessly independent in his thinking. Masuzoe would indeed make a good leader, although I'm not sure why as bright as Masuzoe would want to take on the herculean task of cleaning up the LDP after this election. And I wonder how Masuzoe would fare in an election campaign split along the aforementioned ideological lines.

Ultimately it is difficult to say anything for certain until the votes are counted, until we know which ideological camp lost more seats in the general election.

But it is no longer in doubt that the LDP is about to suffer mightily at the hands of the Japanese people.

3 comments:

Derek said...

I agree that the LDP is headed for a sound defeat, but I think predicting a possible complete demise of the party is highly wishful thinking.

The DPJ is as ideologically split as the LDP, but splits are easy to put aside when there are not yet any spoils to divide. There will be DPJ discord when cabinet posts are divvied up and big campaign promises are pared down to realistic proportions. There will also be LDP discord after the punishing defeat, but both parties will survive.

For an LDP rank-and-filer, the best bet to get through a few years as a ronin is to stay with the party, step into line with whatever consensus emerges as fringe elements leave, and use their newly abundant free time to campaign at home, the same way the DPJ ronin have been doing for the last four years.

The long-term factor that works to the LDP's advantage is that the DPJ simply does not have the longtime ties to local business establishments and organizations that the LDP does: While the DPJ will win this election because the general public is (rightfully) up in arms about poor rule by the LDP, the demographics who always vote--local businesses (especially construction) and their employees, the elderly, religious organizations, sports and cultural organizations, professional associations, and the like--are still voting for the LDP, both in this election and the next.

The high tide of DPJ popularity (which is actually only a low tide of LDP popularity at this point) will inevitably recede, and the LDP--having busily retrenched in single-seat districts in anticipation of an election that won't draw thousands of undecided voters--will gain back a large number of seats. Hopefully, the experience gained by the DPJ during their upcoming administration will solidify their ability to govern, during which time the LDP simultaneously makes necessary changes and gets younger, and we end up with two viable parties actually having to be accountable long-term.

Noah said...

Disintegration of the LDP would be a very bad thing for Japan. Competitive party politics is the only force that has a chance of mitigating the corruption and waste that currently pervade Japan's governing institutions.

Let's hope that social conservatives form enough of a "base" for the LDP to survive as an indestructible party kernel. And let's hope the socialists can do the same for the DPJ. Who knows - in a few more decades we might see Japanese people routinely "throwing the bastards out" whenever things get rough...

Tobias Harris said...

Derek and Noah,

I don't think I was suggesting that the LDP is doomed to split. In fact, I would put money on its survival, even if it takes a few years to sort out its internal mess.

I just don't think it's going to be a pleasant job for whoever replaces Aso. Perhaps Masuzoe really doesn't want the job, and thus declined to run as a PR candidate.

At some point the pendulum swings between the two parties will be less extreme and the two-party system should be a bit more stable.