Monday, May 12, 2008

If I Still Had Any Doubts that the Fukuda Administration Was a Goner…

The May 8 Fuji TV weekly poll says it all: support for the Fukuda Cabinet further fell (if only within the margin of error) to 20.2% (from 22.2% in the May 1, post-gasoline tax hike poll). The same poll said that only 17.8% (15.4%) wanted to vote for an LDP candidate in the next House of Representatives election, while 32.6% (33.0%) chose the DPJ. None of the Above has slipped slightly, but is still clear of its two major rivals at 42.6% (45.4%).

The polls show that Hu Jintao’s visit did little to improve the Mr. Fukuda’s political fortunes. No wonder, since not-positives outnumbered positives by 59.8% to 26.0% on the Prime Minister’s policies toward China. Images of China’s harsh response to the demonstrations in Tibet and along the Olympics torch relay certainly did not help, nor did the inability to come up with something beyond still more words on the East China gas fields and the sputtering investigation into the source of the poisoned Chinese dumpling. It’s hard to see any major gains to be had from the largely ceremonial G-8 get-together in Hokkaido two months from now, nor any other foreign policy coups for that matter. If anything, the expiration of the law that authorizes JSDF operations in Iraq—opposed by a healthy majority of the Japanese public throughout its lifetime—in 2009 July will throw the next regular Diet into a frenzy if John McCain wins the U.S. Presidential race.

On the two touchstone issues, there is no doubt that the reinstated gasoline tax surcharge remains as unpopular as ever, though no new polling was done on the subject this time. But only 20.4% want the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance system be abolished; a full 71.0% seek improvements in its operation or its outright revision. Couple this with the persistent gap between the highly negative response to the reinstatement of the surcharge and the positive response when it is coupled with the turnover of the revenue to the general budget, and add the inability of the DPJ to pull in the great undecided to its side: I cannot escape the feeling that it is the sense of incompetence and indifference, as opposed to the policies themselves, that is the main cause of the precipitous fall in the support for the Fukuda administration and the LDP.

To gain a healthy majority, if not to maintain a supermajority, in the next HR general elections, the ruling coalition must regain the trust of the public on this front. It must play to win, not, mind you, not to lose. With no dramatic diplomatic coups in sight, the only viable candidate for that hallmark achievement appears to be a credible reform package of the entire fiscal profile, expenditures as well as taxes and debt, come fall. Mr. Fukuda, however, does not appear to have the intellectual breadth, his own or borrowed; support within the LDP to override all the entrenched vested interests; or the outreach to the public to go over the heads of fifth columns. Even now, his piecemeal approach to administrative and fiscal reform does not give the lie to this rather dismal evaluation.

In this negative phase of the political game, the deck is stacked in favored fo eh opposition, more specifically, the DPJ. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is difficult for the DPJ to slip seriously—all it has to do is support popular causes and oppose unpopular ones. At this point, “Don’t play to win, play not to lose” seems to be highly viable election strategy for it.

Given this situation, it must be tempting to the LDP to string the public along with the Fukuda administration along as far as it can go, then dump it and go on to the next HR general election under the next “Most Popular” LDP Representative, full steam ahead, before the charm wears off the new Prime Minister.

The other option, of course, is the political Big Bang. There is any number of intra- and cross-party power breakfast, lunches, and dinners going on, which gives an air of credibility to rumors of a major realignment. But beyond sheer inertia, the main obstacle to such an outcome is the lack of political incentive on the part of the DPJ. The DPJ has healthy plurality in the House of Councilors. With a relatively small number of other opposition members on its side there, it will not need an HR supermajority to get its way, policy-wise. Thus, whatever the outcome of the next HR general election, I can understand some splintering but no obviously serious cracks, as a few Representatives here and there, from the major parties as well as micros and the covey of the unaligned court and are courted from the two major players.

All this will lead to an outcome that will leave an inconclusive, even more fluid political situation in place and, more troubling, the major policy issues unresolved. Let’s hope that I’m proven wrong, in a good way.

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