Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Taro Aso and the Competition… Plus, the Supermajority Override

In case anyone is wondering…
Taro Aso’s positives:

1) Taro Aso managed a highly respectable finish in the 2007 LDP Presidential election with a hard-earned take of 197 votes (132 Diet members, 65 local chapter votes) against Mr. Fukuda’s 330 (254 Diet members, 76 local chapter votes), despite the fact that every other faction formally sided with Yasuo Fukuda as the “safe” establishment candidate.
2) Mr. Aso joined the Fukuda team as Secretary-General, second in command to Mr. Fukuda. He has subsequently been anointed by the LDP kingmaker Yoshiro Mori as the Prime Minister’s heir-apparent.
3) Mr. Aso gets along with the increasingly skittish junior coalition partner New Komeito.
4) Mr. Aso is a good campaigner and the most popular Prime Minister candidate in public opinion polls, easily outpolling Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ leader.

The negatives:

1) Mr. Aso has not always acted according to the wishes of the Fukuda administration, signaling early on his willingness to drop the extension of the counterterrorist refueling operations by the Maritime Self-Defense Force and adopting a personal income tax relief/cash payout as part of the economic stimulus package, both in line with New Komeito wishes.
2) Mr. Aso is known for his loose lips, and some of his utterances have been quite off-the-wall.

The alternatives, in descending order of likelihood:

1) Yuriko Koike: A two-time Cabinet Minister under Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe, she became one of the first and surely most celebrated “assasins” in the 2005 Lower House election when she famously switched districts to unseat, successfully, a Post Office rebel. For a former newscaster, she is a surprisingly uninspiring debater—she does better with sound-bites. Now, the media is touting her as a stalking horse for Hidenao Nakagawa and his band of diehard Koizumians. The well-travelled Ms. Koike has usually had her way with alpha dogs from Morihiro Hosokawa (Nippon New Party) to Ichiro Ozawa (New Frontier Party) to Ichiro Koizumi (LDP), but her popularity with lesser party lights and the rank-and-file is suspect. It is telling that she has not held down any significant party posts. She also botched the dismissal of her deputy when she was Defense Minister.

2) Kaoru Yosano: The troubleshooter of choice for fiscal conservatives, he is a weak campaigner, who lost his Lower House seat as an incumbent Cabinet Minister just when he was emerging as a possible future Prime Minister candidate. He turned 70 on 22 August, and suffered from serious health problems last year, not a good omen after two successive Prime Ministers have walked away from the seat of power, one of them at least partly for health reasons, in less than a year.

3) Sadakazu Tanigaki the ripe old age of age of 63, he still has the look and, worse, feel of a well-behaved little boy. He recently merged his micro-faction with Makoto Koga’s much larger one. He has all the appearance of a man who is too nice to win.

4) Nobuteru Ishihara: At age 51, he is still young enough in the LDP at least to be counted as an up-and-comer. He enjoys something of a celebrity status, mainly because of his association with his best-selling writer-turned-politician father, the charismatic Shintaro Ishihara. Often portrayed as a conservative in the gaijin media, he recently gave up his independent status and joined the China-lovin’, North Korea-coddlin’ Takui Yamazaki’s mid-tier faction. Like the other LDP policy-wonks of his generation—Shinzo Abe no exception—he has not managed to escape the impression of being the victim of a case of arrested development.

5) Kunio Hatoyama: He appears here only because his name appeared in the media. He is well on his way to becoming the Harold Stassen of Japanese politics, without ever being Harold Stassen IYKWIAS. (If Kunio Hatoyama is here, can Taro Kono be far behind?)

Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks! G’night!

PS: If I were a betting man and betting were legal in Japan, I would bet that a Prime Minister Aso would be using the supermajority override to pass the consumer protection agency, while allowing the JMSDF refueling operations (and Japan’s permanent UNSC membership ambitions) to die a quiet death. My guess is that there are enough NGOs and their lawyer advocates who would prefer to have a friend in the bureaucracy like Mr. Fukuda’s CPA instead of a competitor like the DPJ’s independent government ombudsman to provide cover for an override.

The death of the refueling operations is a less sure thing: if it were my decision to make, I would go for broke; I think that there is enough of a sense of national pride—witness the outpouring of public grief and sympathy for Kazuya Ito, the 31 old NGO volunteer that was murdered in Afghanistan, as well as for every Japanese that died in Kampuchia and Iraq during public service—to gain political points if Prime Minister Aso decided to push the extension legislation in the face of an Upper House veto. In the media, Yomiuri and Sankaei would support him. I want to see how far New Komeito is willing to bend to cover his ass with regard to the LDP right before I really make up my mind.


Martin J Frid said...

Koike has a big following on Japanese Youtube. I hope she has what it takes to give Aso the finger.

Jun Okumura said...


If I were Ms. Koike, I'd go for it. She's going to lose, but if she acquits herself well, she'll be the flag carrier for the Koizumians. Someday, possibly quite soon, the policy pendulum will swing the other way—the LDP is not leaning toward Mr. Aso because it has suddenly decided to recommit to fiscal expansion and tax relief—and she’s young enough to keep whacking away at the piñata for another ten years. If there’s a big realignment down the line, that’ll be old hat for her. But does she have the political savvy to rally the troops? She didn’t handle herself very well as Defense Minister when she retired her administrative deputy.

Incidentally, I think that the two have similar public communication skills. Neither one is someone that you would put your money on in a debating match, but they give good talks, and provide nice sound bites. They’re both very self-assured and outgoing, and it shows. They like the media, and the media likes them back, I think.

Speaking of which, the media’s attention will be on the LDP race for the next twenty days; it’s the next best thing to a real election. I think that the publicity will help the LDP—unless Mr. Aso trips up badly, but not badly enough to actually lose. Some of the exposure will be negative, but dominating the front pages and the news programs will help the LDP replenish some of that severely depleted public confidence. At a minimum, the contest will keep the spotlights off the pitiful specter of the dead-duck Prime Minister. And there’ll be a winner at the end, so the narrative will have a happy ending. In the meantime, the DPJ will be reduced to taking potshots from the political sidelines, and will be receiving much less attention than they would otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that the DPJ should have a race of its own though. Having Yoshihiko Noda (or heaven forbid Yukio Edano) challenging the publicly awkward Ichiro Ozawa and the no-pain 2007 manifest would be too divisive.