In a little over two months since his inauguration, Prime Minister Aso has managed to achieve the unthinkable. He has slipped below DPJ chief and pretender to his throne, the unloved Ichiro Ozawa, in the public opinion poll taken on by conservative media group Sankei-FNN 31.5% to 32.5% in the choice between the two for the next Prime Minister. (That a full one-third is unwilling to take a punt on either one speaks volumes by itself, but that’s another story.) The public clearly sees this as a choice between the lesser of two evils; in the most desirable choice for Prime Minister, Ozawa at an anemic 11.4% failed yet to overtake the still-popular Junichiro Koizumi—despite announcing his retirement and leaving his seat (hopefully) to his son—with 11.5% of the votes, but did manage to beat out Aso at 8.8%. Needless to say, the approval rate for the Aso Cabinet has fallen to an end-of-the-line, Bushian, 27.5%, with 58.3% disapproving.
It is not difficult to identify the travails that are taking down the beleaguered Prime Minister so swiftly. They mostly revolve around the economy, both the policy and the political aspects.
On the policy side, the issues may be different, but the basic plotline is becoming depressingly familiar. The Prime Minister puts forth a proposal, then goes on to blurt out a series of poorly thought out ideas that tend to obscure, more than flesh out, whatever he may have intended in the first place. LDP leaders and not-so leaders chime in as the loyal internal opposition, adding to the confusion. By some natural law of self-organization, the ruling coalition appears to come to a conclusion. But that is not the end of it, as dissenting party members continue to pipe up.
The most god-awful goings-on have been seen around the tax credit that the New Komeito foisted on an unwilling LDP that has since metastasized into a publicly unpopular two trillion-yen giveaway using surplus funds from the Fiscal Investment and Loans Special Budget. The Prime Minister’s 1 trillion yen payoff to local governments in exchange for taking away their current share of the gasoline tax surcharge revenue—which now goes to build roads to somewhere—that would be merged into the general-purpose funds has also suffered similar, if less spectacular, twists and turns. In the process, the Prime Minister has looked shallow, distracted, indecisive, and diminished, a would-be-leader who has lost control of the operation, like a teacher who has lost his classroom.
All this has taken a toll on Aso in the political game. Most seriously, he has lost his nerve and taken an early snap election off the table. The best bet now is that it will happen no earlier than April and probably later. In the process, he has had to table his second tranche of the economic stimulus package, claiming in last week’s Aso-Ozawa faceoff that the first tranche was would be enough to tide small businesses over the year’s end financial crunch (plausible as an excuse if not completely reassuring) and that he couldn’t trust the DPJ to act swiftly (implausible as an explanation since a near-two month delay as the result of pushing the deliberation of the package to the beginning of the regular Diet session in early January would delay the adoption of the second tranche even further). Needless to say, everyone agreed that he lost the debate, not that easy to do in public against Ozawa.
Is a new LDP Prime Minster in the works then? Not quite. If once is a tragedy and twice is a farce, it hard to see a third act in the works. The public seems to sense this, as the last three Prime Ministers have consistently come in at a higher lower initial approval level than his predecessors (and as noted already gone downhill from there). And it’s been only a little over two months; at least the last two each lasted a year. It is more likely that the Aso administration will linger until the spring, with little hope of improving the ruling coalition’s electoral prospects.
So the question is, is this string of failed/failing administrations just bad luck for the LDP? Or are there greater forces at work?
The three Prime Ministers that the LDP has put forth have several things in common. They are all heirloom politicians. None of them has a track record of political leadership. Aso is the only faction leader among the three, and he only recently inherited, in his late sixties, from his predecessor Yohei Kono (he of the Kono Statement) a twenty-member remnant of a much larger group. As for the other two—Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda—they appeared to be fulfilling a family duty rather than a personal ambition. What makes the LDP throw up these people? Well, the factions themselves are becoming more of a clearing house for information and low-level political appointment in the ministries than a tight-knit launching pad for the political ambitions of their respective leaders for the ultimate prize. The faction leaders tend to be inoffensive caretaker types who can keep his peers’ egos from pushing them to take turns at whacking each other. This is not an environment that encourages new leaders to emerge.
Is the LDP ready to implode, as Ross wonders? Or is the LDP is like an old, moldy football, the air seeping out, the panels beginning to fall off as its frayed seams slowly rot away? Do not imagine that an LDP-New Komeito loss is a sure thing; there’s plenty of inertia, and the DPJ could do much, much more to assure us that it is ready. But it looks increasingly like an institution that is suffering from multiple structural failures.
More to come on this blog, hopefully,
Note: The poll was taken on November 29-30, right after the long-awaited party leaders’ debate the previous day which everyone (including me) agreed that Ozawa had won hands down, so there is likely to be some clawback by Aso. But not much, is my guess.