Friday, December 18, 2009

The Persistence of Incumbents and Hatoyama’s New Year Holiday

Slate has a feature entitled “The 10 Worst Predictions for 2009”, and coming in at number six is the widespread media speculation that Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be resigning in the face of the MP expense account scandal. It’s yet another reminder of the staying power of unpopular prime minister in the face of electoral disaster, actual or looming.

I’m referring, of course, to the succession of one-year-and-out LDP Prime Ministers that preceded Prime Minister Hatoyama’s own motley crew of a coalition government. (In hindsight, does that look like a garage sale before they foreclose on the mortgage or what?) Shinzo Abe lost badly in the 2007 Upper House election but the LDP allowed him to keep his job when, very much to most people’s surprise, he decided to forge ahead. After the gods took mercy on the LDP by forcing him out with a debilitating chronic illness took him out, Yasuo Fukuda took over, only to see his own poll numbers fall over the course of a year. Still, he went out on his volition, passing the torch to Taro Aso—under whom the LDP marched willingly to certain defeat in the August Lower House election like a horde of lemmings.

This is something to keep in mind in considering the beleaguered incumbent’s fate. Some of the tabloids are having fun speculating about a Hatoyama resignation, but it will take more than a couple of even significant oops—inevitable given his personality and circumstances—to force his or, more importantly, Ozawa’s, hand. And I predict that Hatoyama is in for a few months of relative calm.

Hatoyam’s weathered the worst, really. His political financing scandal appears to be nearing media closure, as neither his ex-policy secretary nor his mother will be charged criminally. He messed up the Japan-US relationship as much as he could, but he kicked the US military presence in Okinawa down the timeline, and the flap over China—President Hu Jintao’s meet-and-greet for Ozawa and his 143 Diet-member, 600-strong entourage in Beijing and the even more controversial dustup over China’s No.6 securing an audience with the Emperor—was mostly optics. He got sandbagged by PNP leader Shizuka Kamei into coughing up an additional 4.1 trillion for the upcoming supplementary budget bill, when initial plans called for 3 trillion yen, adding to the general impression that he is susceptible to bullying. Still, that’s a done deal; once the FY2010 budget and tax bills are set—admittedly not an easy process, likely to spill over into the new year—Hatoyama will have the numbers to push them through the two Houses against all opposition. The LDP will try to attack the Hatoyama administration for backing off some key campaign promises—for example, the coalition government will impose an income ceiling on the child allowance proposal and is likely to push the abolition of the gasoline tax surcharge back at least one year—but the embarrassment of the about-face will be offset by the sense of relief at the show of realism regarding measures that had been controversial to begin with.

That said, Hatoyama has been tagged, fairly or not, with the notion that he is a waffler, indecisive, easily swayed and susceptible to bullying, yet stubborn*. And of course, everyone believes that it is Ozawa who wears the pants in the family. Unless I’ve missed something big, there doesn’t seem to be much upside to the man. If my guess that the media narrative has pretty much been written for Hatoyama is correct, the DPJ will face the 2010 HC election under a weakened prime minister. Its saving grace is that the LDP is unlikely to present itself as an attractive alternative.

* Some people look at the wild swings in his comments and see someone who is “unstable. I wouldn’t go that far, but one thing that I’ve noticed that does not receive mention in what I’ve read or heard is this: His voice and articulation change drastically with the occasion. He ranges from the near-falsetto crescendos of his inaugural Diet speech to the baritone mumbling when cornered by reporters. I’m not aware of any significant public figure whose emotions are so transparently observable. And he rambles, on and on, leaving his interlocutors to decipher exactly what he meant.

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