Friday, December 28, 2012

High Poll Numbers Do Not Bring Joy to Abe Cabinet

Support for the new Abe cabinet in national polls taken on December 26-27 is at a near-historical high: Yomiuri 65%, Nikkei-TV Tokyo 62%, Kyodo News 62%, Asahi 59%, and Sankei-FNN 55%. Moreover, support for the LDP appear to be up more than a dozen points from poll numbers taken just after the election was officially announced (December 4), which in turn had been slightly higher than the percentage of the regional proportional district vote total that the LDP won (December 17).

Plausible causes:

First, the rally-around-the-winner mentality of the crowd.

Second, the generally favorable press that a new cabinet gets, a media courtesy extended to even the most obviously incompetent, incontinent, or undisciplined.

Third, the existence of a continuous, all-encompassing socio-political middle ground free of the tribal, ethnic, religious, and regional cleavages that allows the public to shift easily to and from support for the incumbent powers that be.

Fourth and the only situational one, the highly favorable short-term economic news—falling yen, rising stock—that Abe has been able to generate with his public spending and inflation targeting talk.

But “to and from”, indeed. Yomiuri has a nice little chart that reminds us that six of the eight highest support figures for new cabinets since the 1978 Ohira cabinet (21 in all, not counting the “second” and “third” cabinets where the prime minister is retained) belong to the post-Koizumi era. In fact, the only post-Koizumi cabinet that fails to place in the top eight is the ill-fated Aso cabinet (2008-2009).

Plausible contermeasures:

First, avoid cabinet appointments that have to be retracted because of incompetence, incontinence, or simple lack of discipline.* Embarrassment after embarrassment from his cabinet appointments really sapped the political capital of Prime Minister Noda, an otherwise popular and well-regarded figure.

Second, maintain party coherence, and be the first mover when you can’t. This is my main (though not only) takeaway from the contrasting fates of Prime Minister Koizumi (2005) and Noda (2012).

Third, be lucky.

* I’m increasingly of the view that Nobuteru Ishihara is the weakest link. He declined the customary handover, photo-ops and all, from the preceding Minister of Environment and instead went straight to work with his new subordinates. Is that being commonsensical—the handover does not really serve any practical purpose—or just plain rude? Always casual about his appearance, he looked disheveled, hair askew, during the LDP leadership campaign and disappointed audiences with listless performances. Couple that with a recent history of odd pronouncements and he looks quite vulnerable. The Ishihara connection should shelter him from the heaviest shellfire from Mayor Hashimoto and his Japan Restoration Party, but it will not save him from the rest of the opposition looking for an easy kill.

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