Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Polls Show Reshuffle Bump Almost Gone; Public Wants Action Now

According to a couple of recent polls, the Fuji TV poll (Greater Metropolitan Tokyo, weekly, telephone) and the Yomiuri poll (national, monthly, interview), show that the modest bump from Prime Minister Fukuda’s cabinet-LDP leadership reshuffle is mostly gone but hints that the effect of Taro Aso’s return as party Secretary-General has been more substantial. This may be the first time in LDP history that a party-leadership switch turned out to be the most effective public relations move in the reshuffle. That is bad news for the Prime Minister.

The August 7 Fuji TV poll shows both the Fukuda Cabinet and the LDP (candidates in next Lower House election) dead even with their most recent pre-reshuffles selves in the July 17 poll at 27.2% and 21.4% support respectively. The “do not support” figure for the Fukuda Cabinet went up slightly, from 66.6% to 68.4%. Support for DPJ candidates was down slightly from 29.6% to 28.0%. All this should be within any meaningful margin of error.

The August 9-10 Yomiuri poll has support for the Fukuda Cabinet at 28.3%, up slightly from 26.6% in the July 12-13 poll and the “do not support” figure down slightly to 59.7% from 61.3%. More interesting are the Yomiuri figures for the LDP, whose public support has gone up 3.3 percentage points to 30.5%, while the DPJ stood almost unchanged at 18.7% (down 0.1 pp). Moreover, when the responders were asked which party they intended to vote for in the Lower House proportional districts, the LDP scored 31.3% (up 6pp), putting it ahead of the DPJ, which scored 25.1% (down 2pp), for the first time since May.

Only two week-after polls so far, so I’ll keep my eyes open, but it looks like the LDP is doing better that the Fukuda Cabinet and I can think of only one reason for this: Mr. Aso’s appointment. This must be giving both LDP Diet members and the rank-and-file ideas.

As I’ve told you before, procedurally, it’s not easy to depose a sitting President of the LDP. Besides, Mr. Fukuda is pretty stubborn once he makes his mind up, and he gives the impression of a guy that is determined to stay around for a while at least. However, RS and I have been tossing scenarios—more like plotlines—back and forth, and we (mostly he) came up with the idea that the Prime Minister Fukuda might do the delinking of the gasoline tax money from road development and maintenance—fundamental reform of the tax system, i.e. making the decision to raise the consumption tax rate looks increasingly doomed—and the re-extension of the Indian Ocean refueling operations and toss the scepter of power to the person-in-waiting, who’ll take the LDP-Komeito coalition into the next Lower House election.

This actually follows an oft-scripted Japanese narrative. The tragic hero that fulfills his duty against all odds then falls on his sword—or spills his guts, since this is Japan—is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore and popular drama. The cause he espouses matters only tangentially; the important thing is the self-sacrifice. Then all is forgiven. On a slightly different plane, the LDP rode Prime Minister Ohira’s untimely death during the campaign for the 1980 Upper-House-Lower House double election to an otherwise inexplicable landslide victory. Mr. Fukuda can only die a metaphorical death; not quite the real thing, but it’s better than nothing. For Mr. Fukuda, it beats leading the LDP into a bloodbath, then resigning, and it gives him the satisfaction of becoming a party martyr of sorts.

All this has everything to do with the political game and not much to do with statecraft. For that, we turn again to one of the questions in the Yomiuri poll, which asks:
If there are issues that you want the Fukuda Cabinet to take up on a priority basis, please give as many as you like.

The Yomiuri gave responders 17 examples to choose from. The numbers were down on 15, with the environment taking the biggest hit (22.9%←30.6%; note that the Fukuda Cabinet with the complicity of the media was touting its role in pushing the global warming agenda at the Hokkaido Summit), with North Korea (20.6%←27.5%) and food safety (32.0%←37.9%) also taking a tumble in the electorate’s priorities. Self-defense/national security showed a statistically insignificant 0.3 percentage-point rise (9.2%←8.9%). The only real gainer? “Economic and employment countermeasures”, at 63.2%, up 5.6 percentage points from 57.6%. We want economic stimulus, and more jobs. “Reform of the social security system including pensions and medical care” clocks in at 60.2% down 2.8 percentage points. Nothing else comes close.

The economy has even overtaken all the scandals over the social safety net and its long-term solvency worries in the minds of the Japanese public. This doesn't mean that the LDP can take its eyes off them; they have their own constituencies. But I do believe that most long-term, structural issues will be taking a backseat to more immediate concerns over the economy in the mass media. That is where the main thrust of what passes for statecraft is going to be directed for the time being.

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