Thursday, May 07, 2009

State of the Nation: Aso, LDP on Mini Roll While DPJ Flounders

Spring and the new fiscal year have brought Prime Minister Aso and the LDP-Komeito coalition good tidings. April did begin somewhat inauspiciously with front-to-back coverage of the flap over a false missile alert—the North Korean authorities wound up launching the Taepodong 2 one day later, on a Sunday morning—but it did them little harm, since the tracking system itself worked flawlessly and the SAC-3s and Patriot 3s never were tested. The fact that the mid-range ballistic missile is never going to be targeted at Japan also must have had a lot to with the fact that the whole incident blew by with little fallout on the domestic political scene.

But after that mini-setback that never really was, things have been looking up for the Aso administration. The official response to the swine flu epidemic has been generally good from a political point of view. The coordination between the national authorities and local governments (and immigration services) appears to have proceeded with few hitches**, and rapid disclosure of suspected cases—all turning up negative—has helped keep the media off their backs. The SARS experience must be serving them well. An actual outbreak—not just an isolated case—will change all this if they mishandle it, but so far so good. Thus, the DPJ has found little to slam the Aso administration here.

Just as important, the economy has shown some signs of bottoming out, with industrial production showing a modest uptick in March, with promises of a couple of more months of better times (compared to what, cynics will say, but any good news is welcome these days), and the stock market has been holding. The rise in industrial production has nothing to do with the latest stimulus package now in the hands of the Diet and everything to do with the precipitous inventory drawdown coming to an end, but the media is not going to deny the authorities some credit for the first two stimulus packages, which most importantly directly provided badly-needed financing to the business sector. The stock market (and ultimately the economy itself) continues to rise and fall with the U.S. market and the dollar-yen exchange rate, both matters that are out of the government’s hands. But so far, the FY2009 economy has been raising (I’m not ready to say “floating”) the Aso administration’s boat.

It has also helped Aso that the DPJ’s economic program has received little public attention. The media hasn’t been helpful, but that’s at least partly because there’s nobody around to sell it. The policy wonks who work on this sort of thing are generally not close to party leader Ozawa in the best of times; these days, many of them must be sticking pins in effigy dolls to hasten an outcome that should be increasingly inevitable**.

This of course brings us to the DPJ’s real problem. The only thing the media care about as far as the DPJ is concerned is what’s up with Ozawa, and, with few exceptions, that’s all they’re going to report. So the damage to the DPJ—to its credit and the LDP’s likely worry, public support for the DPJ has held up much better than it has for Ozawa personally—becomes greater with every day that passes without change. Unfortunately for the DPJ, the beleaguered Ozawa has reverted to type, retreating into a shell and digging in his heels at the same time. Yet the other leaders cannot force his hand because there’s a good chance that he’ll call forth his men and pocket his money and once again sunder a party that he helped create.

And that’s where things stand, as the Japanese political scene begins to awaken from the slumber and the overseas junkets of Golden Week (the short version***).

* A potential dustup between Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Maszoe and Yokohama Mayor Hiroshi Nakata was avoided when Nakata brushed off unwarranted accusations of unpreparedness from the impetuous Masuzoe with minimum fuss. Incidentally, the coolly competent and still youthful Nakata should be at the head of the line or thereabouts when you make a list of local politicians who could play major roles in a national realignment of party politics. (And no, conservative nationalists will not rally around Shintaro Ishihara, only partly because he won’t indulge them.)

There were reported cases of doctors refusing to treat fever outpatients, but that seems to have been the result of a misunderstanding of an official notice to refer suspected cases to designated treatment centers. A few days have gone by without any further reports of such incidents.

** According to this Sankei report, the outside experts commission hasn’t been acting so kindly with regard to Ozawa either, as what I posted here also indicates. It’s Sankei, who wants Ozwa’s hide badly, reporting, but it does dovetail with my take on the commission.

*** Some people are taking this Thursday and Friday off too, stretching it out to a 26 April-10 May string of 15 uninterrupted holidays. And who says we Japanese work too hard?

There’s some talk of a cabinet reshuffle to spice things up before going into a Lower House election. That’s the one thing I’m very skeptical about. Every major makeover in recent years seems to come with shakedown problems, as political finance issues and gaffes force apologies and even resignations from newly-minted Ministers. The Aso administration finally got its act together after it ditched Shoichi Nakagawa and, tellingly, added the Finance Ministry to Economy Czar Kaoru Yosano’s portfolio instead of taking on a new Finance Minister. I think that the LDP will ditch Aso before he falls into such dire straits that he sees no harm in making that gamble.

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