Yes, it will be far more exciting for political junkies like me if I turn out to be wrong and Yuriko Koike wins. But that’s the stuff of political fiction, I’m afraid.
We thought the LDP presidential race was all but over with ten days to go, with nearly half the Diet members and the majority of local leaders lining up behind Taro Aso, the Man Who’s Time Had Come. The restless media would be free to turn its attention to other matters during the run-up to the actual vote on the 22nd, such as DPJ efforts to slam the LDP with MAFF’s involvement in the diversion of tainted rice and yet another sordid set of revelations regarding SIA falsification of public pension records. This morning, Junichiro Koizumi changed all that, endorsing Yuriko Koike in response to a plea from a group of Yuriko Koike’s supporters including Seishiro Eto, Ms. Koike’s election chief and Tsutomu Takebe, head of New Wind and diehard Koizumian. This brings instant credibility to Ms. Koike as a Prime Minister candidate, and the media is all over the story.
The endorsement became public in a typically unorthodox fashion, by way of a report by Mr. Eto to a meeting of Ms. Koike’s supporters. According to Mr. Eto, Ex-Prime Minister Koizumi said, “I’m supporting Ms. Koike. I’ll vote for Ms. Koike. If Ms. Koike becomes [LDP] President, we can fight on an equal footing with the Ozawa DPJ.” Another Diet member attending the meeting with Mr. Koizumi added that he told them that they could make his endorsement public and that Diet members should consider whom they could win the election with.
However, this will not change the immediate outcome of the election, and Mr. Koizumi should be the first to realize that. Mr. Kozumi for all his weirdness had been a major figure in party politics—enough to be entrusted with the leadership of the Mori faction while its eponymous leader served an unhappy term as Prime Minister—while the well-traveled Ms. Koike is an upstart outsider. Moreover, the narrative has changed; none of the candidates are giving up reform, but there’s a time for soothing and healing the aches and bruises of the Koizumi reform years and that time is now. Besides, the public is worried about the economy. There may be no gain without pain, but even tightwad Kaoru Yosano is pitching a two-, three-year timeout. The pure Koizumi message, such as it was, will not play well in the provinces.
Having said that, Mr. Koizumi’s endorsement will reverberate through the post-election days, and here we are really talking about the Lower House election. For the LDP-New Komeito coalition, retaining a Lower House majority still leaves the Upper House in opposition hands with almost certain veto power—the coalition is sure to lose its Lower House supermajority. If the DPJ defeats the coalition, it may very well fall short of an outright majority and end up cobbling together a coalition with a motley crew of old-school socialists (Social Democrats) and vested-interests politics (New People’s Party). Even if it does win an outright majority in the Lower House election, it will still need the cooperation of other parties to pass a bill in the Upper House, where it falls short of a majority. In other words, no matter who wins the Lower House election, it is likely that the new administration will have a rough go of it. The public will quickly tire of the kind of political game that has driven the last two sessions in a bisected Diet. One possibility is stepped-up across-the-aisle cooperation, possibly even a Grand Coalition of the kind that Mr. Ozawa envisaged. Another is a dynamic realignment of the political parties.
As recently as last January, Ms. Koike talked openly and enthusiastically about a possible realignment revolving around Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Ozawa. The endorsement of Ms. Koike by Mr. Koizumi—his third reform, the political, as aimed at “destroying the LDP”—in the face of overwhelming establishment support for Mr. Aso, brings that possibility closer to reality.