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Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

Prime minister's crisis political, not financial


Staff writer

Prime Minister Taro Aso's desire to address the global financial crisis appears to be why a snap election won't be called anytime soon, but political analysts have another take: He just wants to avoid a losing battle.

When Aso became prime minister in September, political insiders assumed he would dissolve the Lower House and quickly call an election. He implied as much in a monthly magazine published in early October that he was determined to take on the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, and its leader, Ichiro Ozawa.

"(My) first mission is to seek the judgment of the people," Aso said in the magazine. "At the beginning of the Diet, I would like to openly throw my policies and the LDP's policies at Ozawa and ask him whether he is for or against them, and then listen to the public."

Soon after the Diet session opened, however, Aso found himself in a more unfavorable position to call a snap election.

First, the support rate for his Cabinet started off at an unexpectedly low 48.6 percent in a Kyodo News survey in September. When his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, formed his Cabinet, it started off with a 57.8 percent support rate. Aso's rating dipped to 42.5 percent in another Kyodo poll in mid-October.

Then came the U.S. credit crisis and the ensuing stock market plunges around the world. On Tuesday, the Nikkei stock average nosedived below 7,000 at one point, its lowest level in 26 years.

That was just the excuse Aso needed.

Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University, said Aso can avoid public criticism by stressing that now, during this financial crisis, is not the time for the political vacuum that would ensue if the Lower House was dissolved for an election.

Behind the reasons given for delaying an election, however, lie a series of seriously damaging internal surveys conducted by the Liberal Democratic Party. The Nikkei Shimbun reported Thursday that the LDP's most recent survey showed the DPJ would win an outright majority in the House of Representatives.

The LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition was projected to lose about 130 seats, reducing their number to about only 200 out of the 480 seats in total, the paper quoted the internal survey as showing.

A veteran LDP lawmaker said that speaking candidly, he is a little bit relieved an election hasn't been called, because many party members are not prepared for a serious political battle.

"I think Aso just didn't have the confidence to win," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of political science at Hokkaido University. "The LDP risks losing power in the next general election and there is no doubt that LDP lawmakers feel insecure."

Aso now faces his biggest challenge — the battle with the DPJ in a divided Diet, which played a major role in the abrupt resignations of Fukuda and his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

The DPJ had been pushing Aso to call an election as soon as possible and, in return, the opposition had been cooperating with the ruling camp by speeding up Diet deliberations on key policies and bills, including the special antiterrorism bill to enable the continuation of the Indian Ocean refueling mission.

But now that Aso has delayed the election, pundits said they expect the DPJ to adopt more confrontational tactics in the Diet, even though DPJ Diet affairs chief Kenji Yamaoka has so far denied such speculation.

"We have no intention of pointlessly drawing out deliberations," Yamaoka told reporters earlier this week. "We want to hold thorough deliberations and argue out the details . . . not offer resistance for the sake of opposing."

Ever since rumors circulated in the political center of Nagata-cho that Aso had decided to put off dissolving the Lower House, however, there has been a change of mood in the Diet. For instance, the antiterrorism bill, which was set to be passed by the Diet by the end of October, has now been pushed back to possibly early November.

The disruption of the Diet's schedule will also affect a key bill now being discussed in the Lower House to inject public funds into financial institutions to prevent their capital bases from deteriorating and facilitate their lending.

While the ruling bloc is set to pass the bill soon in the lower chamber, the DPJ and other opposition parties controlling the Upper House are opposed to some of the clauses in the bill, and more time may be necessary to reconcile the differences in policy.

"In general, we are in agreement that quick measures need to be taken," Yamaoka said of the public funds injection bill. "And it is up to (the DPJ) to create a bill that works — because the one that the ruling bloc and government produced seems to be getting the opposite results."

Critics agreed that Aso's decision not to call a general election would cast him in a negative light, and that by skipping this opportunity he may have to delay a poll until next September, when the Lower House members' terms expire.

"Aso's image would take a turn for the worse — it would give the impression he is indecisive, someone who won't fight in the face of defeat," Hokkaido University's Yamaguchi said.

This delay has also placed key LDP lawmakers in a tough position, including party Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda and Diet affairs chief Tadamori Oshima, both of whom were vocal advocates for an early poll and repeatedly sent out signals to fellow lawmakers to prepare for it.

There will also be friction with New Komeito, which held out hope that Aso would dissolve the Lower House in November.

New Komeito, backed by Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, had been prodding Aso to call a snap election before year's end. The party had wanted to avoid a later election so it wouldn't clash with a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly poll next summer. Tokyo is Soka Gakkai's home ground and New Komeito's political base.

Given that the LDP can no longer face an election without New Komeito's support, Aso will be placed in an even tighter spot, critics said.

"Unless there is a major turn of events, I don't think there is a way for Aso to recover his leadership and support," Keio University's Sone said.



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