Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Staying Power of Incumbents?

For all the recent messiness regarding the Nishimatsu political money, Ichiro Ozawa and the DPJ for the most part still led or at least tied Taro Aso and the LDP in the weekend opinion polls. On Tuesday, the DPJ leadership met and closed ranks behind their leader (though many lesser members apparently kept talking otherwise—anonymously—to the press) and vowed to support him through the upcoming Lower House election. Following the leadership meeting, a newly contrite Ozawa held a press conference where he issued an apology to the Japanese public but made it clear that nothing short of his secretary being convicted of bribery* would force him to leave under anything but his own terms. Sankei will continue to push for his resignation, and Yomiuri will be hard put to contain its disappointment when (and if) the indictment comes down and Ozawa holds on, but it looks increasingly likely that RS is right and Ozawa has dodged the bullet for the time being. If, as RS believes, Ozawa’s continued presence will deny the DPJ an outright victory=simple majority, so be it, it seems.

Given the smallness of their own improvements in the polls even after what was supposed to be a devastating blow to the opposition leader, I would think that LDP members could read the writing on the wall and be getting busy pushing the Prime Minister out of the kantei and replacing him with one of any number of electorally more palatable alternatives. Except that they aren’t. In fact, if anything, the tide seems to be flowing the other way.

Last week, when ex-Prime Minister Koizumi followed through on his vow to sit out the March 4 Lower House revote on the legislative bill authorizing funds for the 2 trillion yen handout, only one LDP member, one of his secretaries when he was Prime Minister, flowed suit. The same day, the LDP youth (and not-so-youth) movement Sumiyaka na Seisaku Jitsugen wo Motomeru Kai (Association of Concerned Diet Members Who Seek the Speedy Realization of Policies) shed its hardcore anti-Aso members and renamed itself Jimintō wo Sasshin-shi Nihon wo Saisei-suru Kai (Association to Reform the LDP and Regenerate Japan). Koizumi Kids protector Tsutomu Takebe is still openly calling for an election fight under a new leader, but even he is willing to let Aso serve out his term. Nothing that has happened since the weekend polls indicate that the Aso administration is facing a serious challenge from the party faithful.

In hindsight, I feel that I should have remembered that the LDP meekly acquiesced when Shinzo Abe decided against all expectations to stay on as Prime Minister after the 2007 electoral debacle. The Upper House loss had put the LDP-New Komeito coalition well behind the DPJ there with little hope of regaining the majority for the next two three-year election cycles. Still, Abe managed to hang on until his health gave out and left him with no other choice but to pass the baton to…Yasuo Fukuda, who also quickly earned the disapproval of the Japanese public but likewise managed to leave under his own volition after an admittedly brief reign.

As for Ozawa, given the 2007 landslide victory, he has a greater claim to intra-party legitimacy than Aso. Plus, he has more troops, both relatively and absolutely, who are loyal to him than the LDP mini-faction leader. There’s still plenty of noise in the DPJ, but it’s all behind-the-scenes. Although the electoral benefits of Ozawa fading into the background seem pretty obvious as well, there’s a common thread running here of allowing party leaders to choose their fate regardless of the short-term consequences to the parties themselves. All this may only mean that everybody believes that the prospects for an early Lower House election are diminishing and is consequently taking a wait-and-see approach. But it is a pattern that I’ll take into greater consideration going forward.

* I’ve mentioned before that there are two types of bribery on the books: the garden variety wairo (bribe) involving shūwai (the receiving) and zōwai (the giving) that ordinary public servants take part in and the more nebulous assen (intermediation) that Diet members and their publicly-installed secretaries engage in. I am referring to the former here.

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