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Monday, Oct. 20, 2008


Aso's curtailed prospects

Although Taro Aso won a landslide victory in the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 22 and was elected prime minister two days later, his administration could conceivably become the shortest in history, shorter even than the record 54 days of Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni, who ruled the country starting Aug. 17, 1945 — two days after World War II ended.

The outcome of the Lower House election, likely to take place within weeks rather than months, could defy the common notion that the next government will be headed by either Aso of the LDP or Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

This is because, despite Aso's overwhelming victory in the LDP presidential race, two people who ran against him loom as large as ever: Kaoru Yosano, state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, and Yuriko Koike, former defense minister and a rare female political heavyweight.

Having once served as secretary to former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Yosano is well versed in policy matters but lacks politicking skills. It is reasonable to assume that he did not seek the LDP presidency because of a personal political ambition. He threw his hat into the ring at the urging of his colleague Hiroyuki Sonoda, with the consent of the Yomiuri newspaper group chairman, Tsuneo Watanabe. All three have one goal in common — to balance the fiscal budget even at the cost of raising taxes.

Watanabe had long thought that Yosano would better serve as an adviser to the leader. Watanabe apparently changed his mind about that at the urging of Sonoda, who in 1993 had a hand in ending decades of LDP political domination and installing the regime of Hiromori Hosokawa. In 2000, however, Sonoda failed in his attempt to depose then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

With the support of Sonoda and other colleagues, Yosano finished second in the LDP election, but garnered only 66 votes — fewer than his target of 80 and far behind the 351 votes won by Aso.

The upcoming Lower House election could lead to a fundamental change in the political landscape, even though Watanabe failed a year ago to form a "grand alliance" between the LDP under then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and the DPJ headed by Ozawa. At that time, Watanabe's scheme was reportedly agreed to by both Fukuda and Ozawa but the latter's deputies nixed the idea.

When Fukuda surprised the nation in September by becoming the second straight LDP prime minister to resign after only about a year in office, some party officials feared that the LDP might be able to win only 150 seats in the next general election, down from the commanding 304 majority it holds now. As a result of the intraparty election campaign, they now think the part's popularity is worth about 200 seats.

The picture is not much rosier for the opposition DPJ, which appeared as of mid-September to be assured of no more than 200 seats.

In the 480-seat Lower House, minor parties (the current junior coalition partner Komeito, Japanese Communist Party, Social Democratic Party and New People's Party) and independents hold 62 seats. That means about 420 seats are up for grabs by the LDP and the DPJ in the next general election.

Whichever of the two major parties wins 210 seats will form a new government — most likely a coalition with one or more of the other smaller groups. The loser, on the other hand, will probably face an internal revolt leading to a factional split.

Having won 66 votes in the party presidential election, Yosano should be in a position to assume a high Cabinet or party post following an LDP election victory. If the party loses and disintegrates, he could lead his followers to form a new coalition with the DPJ.

A similar scenario may apply to former Defense Minister Koike, who placed third in the party presidential election with 46 votes, a commendable performance given the fact that her former mentor, ex-premier Mori, refused to permit his followers to support her. She did receive strong support from former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, though.

The most important plank in her political platform is to reform policymaking by depriving the Finance Ministry bureaucrats of the power to make decisions related to economic policies and ensuring elected politicians play the leading role. This distinguishes her from Prime Minister Aso, who is not keen on administrative reform. Nor is her thinking close to that of Yosano. Indeed, her political ideology is much closer to that promulgated by Ozawa and his DPJ.

Votes in major metropolitan areas are more important in Lower House than in Upper House elections, as exemplified by DPJ's miserable loss to the LDP under Koizumi in 2005. The former won in only one of Tokyo's 25 constituencies. Presumably, it was with this in mind that three of the five candidates in the LDP presidential election in September — Aso, Yosano, Koike, Nobuaki Ishihara and Shigeru Ishiba — had their respective constituencies in Tokyo.

The DPJ's Ozawa, while continuing to visit farming and fishing villages to woo rural votes, apparently has decided to abandon his home constituency in Iwate Prefecture and shows interest in running from the 12th constituency in Tokyo — the very place where Komeito President Akihiro Ota was elected.

It is certainly possible for Ozawa to lose to Ota. If that happened, Ozawa would have a legitimate reason to resign from the party leadership to become a political kingmaker.

With the general election around the corner, a decisive battle is about to open between Aso's LDP and Ozawa's DPJ. Whatever the outcome, this will be the harbinger of a dramatic change in Japan's political landscape.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering the Japanese political, social and economic scene.

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