Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What Aso Can Do to Turn It Around

A look at two last-minute reversals of fortune that saved LDP administrations from devastating election losses gives us some idea of what Prime Minister Aso is up against.

(Case 1: The 2005 Koizumi Theater Election)

It’s all too easy to forget that by 2005, a lousy economy and an ascendant DPJ had the LDP-led administration on the ropes. The Upper House election loss to the DPJ the year before hadn’t helped either. Thus, when Prime Minister Koizumi expelled Lower House members who had voted against Post Office privatization from the LDO and called a snap election, most experts predicted yet another devastating LDP defeat. Instead, Koizumi ran as the candidate standing up to vested interests and led the LDP to a resounding victory that ensured a Lower House supermajority for the ruling coalition.

Moral of the story: It helps to be the good guys.

Strategic advice for Aso: Cast yourself as the antiestablishment candidate. The problem here, of course, is that Aso is the establishment candidate. He has made it clear that he only reluctantly went along with Post Office privatization. He has defanged the initiative pushed by Prime Minister Fukuda (fils) to take gasoline tax money away from the road construction tribe, and quickly backed off from proposals to shake up the social safety net bureaucracy. In fact, he has shown none of the flair and stubbornness that Koizumi drew on as he bucked his party and the opinion polls to victory.

(Case 2: The 1980 Double Election)

In 1978, Masayoshi Ohira succeeded Takeo Fukuda as Prime Minister by wresting the LDP Presidency away from the latter in a bitterly fought election. This was the beginning of a feud between the two and their supporters that saw a devastating general election the following year that took away the LDP’s majority in the Lower House, the subsequent LDP election between the two mortal rivals that Ohira barely won, and the 1980 Lower House vote of no-confidence against the Ohira Cabinet that unexpectedly passed when Fukuda’s allies in the LDP decided to sit it out. The civil war ended only when Ohira died of a heart attack during the subsequent election campaign for the snap election that Ohira called. Ohira’s death not only united the LDP but also managed drew a huge sympathy vote, resulting in landslide victories in both Houses*. It also brought to power new Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, one of the less effective prime ministers of the post-WW II era.

Moral of the story: Mourning becomes the LDP.

Strategic advice for Aso: Die. This doomsday option, though, has some obvious shortcomings of its own.

* Ohira timed the snap Lower House election to coincide with the Upper House election scheduled to be held every three years.

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