Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Has the LDP Finished Cleaning House? Don't Ask the Party President

LDP leaders have convinced Yutaka Kobayashi to be a man and resign from his just-won, second-term Upper House seat and allow Akira Matsu, the runner-up and faithful member of the coalition-partner New Komeito to take over instead. He could stay on until the criminally indicted members of his campaign financing managers exhaust all appeals to any guilty verdicts, but at that point (any time beyond three months after the election to be exact), new elections would have to be called, one that could very likely be won by yet another DPJ candidate. Just as important, the LDP leadership clearly did not want to let this linger into the Diet session that convenes next week, where Mr. Kobayashi could have become yet another hugely distracting sideshow.

More surprising for the Japanese media was the sudden decision by Tokuichiro Tamazawa, a nine-term Lower House veteran, to leave the LDP (but not the Diet) as penitence because his political office had used the same receipts multiple times to account for expenditures (as befitting my Two Rules of LDP Diet Member Responsibility). No doubt the party leadership engineered this as well.

Party veteran Tamazawa's fate has irked some LDP members, who think this was harsh compared to Yukiko Sakamoto, who had lost her Vice Minister post in the Foreign Ministry to a similar sin but did not have to leave the party. Evidently, they are playing some kind of board game, where they've beach drawn a fake-receipts, take-one-step back card. Then of course there's Takehiko Endo, who took one giant step back from MAFF Minister. So that's my rule number three.

It is highly likely that the Prime Minister/party president had little to do with executing the latest demotion and exile; they have the look and feel of having been taken care of by the aconsiglieris. And normally, that would be that. However, in this case, they merely underscore the near-consensus in the JMSM that Prime Minister Abe had let Taro Aso, party Secretary-General, and Kaoru Yosano, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, take care of offing Mr. Endo and Ms. Sakamoto. In fact, one earlier news report had Mr. Abe allowing Mr. Aso to take care of all the Vice Minister selections.

Perhaps all the bad cards have been drawn, and no new crises in the HR department are imminent. But Mr. Abe's control is slipping badly, and the grown ups are taking over the ship. At least that is the perception, and that perception is created because everybody in the LDP is talking with impunity. And Mr. Aso and Mr. Yosano get the credit without talking the hits.

What seems like a long, long time ago, Prime Minister Koizumi brought the abductees and their family members home, but his Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary - later Secretary-General and Chief Cabinet Secretary - got all the credit. Perhaps it is only poetic justice that we are seeing the ascendancy of Secretary-General Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yosano.

This has serious implications for the succession. The one safeguard that has kept Mr. Abe away from the scaffold has been the lack of a better alternative to lead them to victory in the next Lower House election (no later than September 2009). If Mr. Aso and Mr. Yosano continue their rise in public esteem - no sure thing, but the media will likely build them up, if only to set them up for a fall at the nearest convenient opportunity - the party faithful will surely take a good look at the prospects of premiericide. Mr. Abe's margin of error is looking very, very thin.

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