Friday, July 06, 2007

How Prime Minister Abe Stays on after the Upper House Election

As you may have seen in any number of online articles and here, the ruling coalition needs the consistent support of 64 winners in the upcoming election to maintain a working majority in the Upper House. I use the phrase "consistent support" because it need not be formal participation in the coalition. Let's assume that Komeito, with always reliable Sokagakkai support, takes 13 seats as expected. If the LDP does as badly as in 2004 (for which Mr. Abe took responsibility and resigned as secretary-general of the party) and wins 49 seats, then the coalition needs two more seats. Where will they come from?

A couple of intriguing things happened yesterday (July 6). First, the split in the Shinto Nihon. The two Diet members of the Shinto Nihon, Hiroyuki Arai (Upper House; elected 2004) and Makoto Taki (Lower House) left the party in a split with their non-Diet member leader, the novelist and ex-governor Yasuo Tanaka. Shinto Nihon is one of the two micro-parties formed mainly by some of the LDP Lower House castoffs who voted against Prime Minister Koizumi's Post Office privatization bill. (Mr. Arai, as a member of the Upper House, left of his own volition.) Mr. Abe, only reluctantly voted for the Koizumi plan, as you may remember, and is favorably inclined toward the exiles. Mr. Arai may very well return to the LDP fold; since he was not expelled, he may not even have to put his signature on that humiliating document that Takeo Hiranuma refused to submit. Even if he doesn't, he did vote Mr. Abe for prime in the Upper House designation vote, so we can safely consider him at minimum a de facto member of the post-election coalition.

In another falling out, Shinpei Matsushita (Shin-Ryokufukai, Upper House, elected 2004) left the Upper House "DPJ-Shin-Ryokufukai" joint party group (a virtual party for practical parliamentarian purposes) in a dispute over which of the two independent candidates to support in his electoral district (Miyazaki Prefecture) for the upcoming election. Mr. Matsushita claims he has no intention of returning to the LDP (although elected as an independent by defeating the LDP candidate, he was an LDP provincial assemblyman before that) and will act as an independent. Chalk him up as undecided. It is useful to keep in mind that his independent protégée, if elected, will surely vote with Mr. Matsushita.

So there are two seats not up for election this time that have left the opposition, and one of them is likely to support Mr. Abe. If the ruling coalition manages to hold on to 49 seats as they did in the 2004 debacle, they will be tantalizingly close to, and may even reach, the 51-seat threshold by reaching out to these two incumbent, newly independent Upper House members.

But can the LDP hold on to even that many seats? LDP and Abe administration are even less popular this time around than in 2004. In their favor are the economy, and a turnaround in the relationship with China. Working against them are: engineering the return of 12 of the exiles, which touched off the decline; the string of political scandals large and small culminating in the suicide of one minister and the resignation of two others; the more substantive mess at the National Insurance Agency, and the appearance of fecklessness in the face of the latter two. The DPJ has not been able to take advantage of LDP misfortunes (can anyone please tell me who coined the phrase "snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory"?), and is lacking cohesion and momentum compared to 2004, but its numbers do not look any worse than it was then. Even though it is possible, even likely, that the LDP will pick up the odd independent-conservative winner or two, still, it is definitely not a safe bet that the LDP will gather the 51 votes, including one or two who are not running this time around, to maintain a working post-election majority. And this brings us to the Kokumin Shinto.

The Kokumin Shinto is the larger LDP-exile micro-party, led by former LDP heavyweights Tamisuke Watanuki and Shizuka Kamei. It has four Upper House seats, of which two are up for reelection. For argument's sake, let's assume that it breaks even. If it then joins the coalition, and we are also assuming that the Komeito takes 13 and Mr. Matsui, and the opposition MP who supported Mr. Abe's bid for prime minister, the LDP will need only have won 47 seats to maintain an Upper House working majority. Subtract the usual newly elected odd independent or two that may join the LDP, and it could conceivably make do with 45, or 46.

What are the chances of the Kokumin Shinto joining the coalition? In a formal sense, none. Party leaders have consistently stated that they will maintain their independence. It will be very difficult to go back on that any time soon after the election, and the LDP will not be able make it any easier by waiving the conditions for the return of the outcasts. But Mr. Watanuki in particular has indicated his potential willingness to work ex-cabinet with the coalition, and has openly supported selected LDP candidates.

The Kokumin Shinto is likely, though, to demand the revisiting of the terms of Post Office privatization as the condition for such cooperation. Such a cave-in on the part of the coalition carries serious political costs in terms of public relations. But Mr. Abe may reckon that he lost what there was to lose last December when he welcomed back 12 exiles. Moreover, to repeat, he only reluctantly supported Mr. Koizumi's privatization package, and has strong sympathy for the exiles. So if that were all it takes, I would say that he would go for it, and take his chances that nothing more will happen to take him down, at least until the next LDP presidential (≒prime minister) election in September 2008 and hopefully 2009, when the next Lower House general election comes due. But there's the matter of Mr. Fujimori. The LDP must be hoping that the Kokumin Shinto does just poorly enough to keep Mr. Fujimori out of the Upper House. But Mr. Fujimori is a popular figure in Japan. If I had to guess, I would bet that Mr. Abe will decide that a working virtual majority is worth the international embarrassment . (No U.S. House of Representatives resolution this time.)

For your convenience: the latest Asahi poll chart:

Caveats: I do not know any of the principals personally, and some important parts of what I've written are conjecture or assumptions. The end game that involves the Kokumin Shinto and what goes on in the mind of Mr. Abe is particularly iffy. In fact, Mr. Abe might just call it a day anyway; by all accounts, he is not the kind who seeks power for its own sake.

While doing online research on Mr. Kamei, I found that the owners of the copyright for Doraemon are doing a very good job of protecting it; just thought you'd like to know.

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