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Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009

Aso set to lead LDP's last stand?

Dissent within, without mounts as ratings fall and election looms

Staff writer

In 2007 it was Shinzo Abe. In 2008 it was Yasuo Fukuda and in 2009 it is Taro Aso.

News photo
Musical chairs: Prime Minister Taro Aso walks past his two predecessors, Yasuo Fukuda (center) and Shinzo Abe, during a ceremony to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Emperor's accession in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 19. KYODO PHOTO

In each of the past three years, Japan has kicked off the new year with a different prime minister. With the support rate for Aso and his Cabinet plunging, his administration — which started only three months ago — is already on the rocks. And the ruling Liberal Democratic Party must do something fast, and convincing, before the general election deadline in September unless it wants to be consigned to an opposition role.

The current and two former leaders of Japan have two things in common — their fathers or grandfathers had been prime ministers and they each decisively won their party's presidential elections.

And these are the two major reasons why today's prime ministers are so "weak," critics say.

With name recognition from their fathers and grandfathers, second- and third-generation lawmakers find relatively secure footing from the start. The flip side is that they don't need to learn how to sell themselves, thus their political scope is limited, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

The weakening of the LDP's factions, which used to play a key role in the party's power structure and in grooming leaders, has gutted the party's ability to lead from the inside.

This shift was triggered in 1994, when electoral system reforms ended the multiseat constituencies and introduced the single-seat system, transferring political and financial influence from faction leaders to LDP executives.

"In the old days, only faction leaders with a strong foundation could become prime ministers," Kawakami said. But now, "lawmakers are turning to opinion polls . . . to see who is being praised by the media."

Today's leaders "have no basis within the party — the image of political leaders is built on a very unstable pedestal called public opinion," Kawakami said. "Because the LDP has been choosing leaders based on (public opinion polls) . . . the leaders keep changing."

Now it's Aso's turn. He, like Fukuda and Abe, was confident of strong backing within the LDP, whereas Abe's long-serving predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, rose to power because of his strong public appeal.

The ordinary Diet session that starts Monday is going to be a rough ride for Aso. In the next few months, he must get the Diet's approval for the second supplementary budget for fiscal 2008, the fiscal 2009 budget, and related bills for launching his economic measures to fight unemployment, the recession and the global economic downturn.

But Aso's main task in 2009 will be to find the right time to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a snap election to improve the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition's chances of staying in power.

While some political insiders speculate the election will happen this spring, after the Diet passes the budget, others say it won't happen until after the Group of Eight summit in Italy, possibly near the end of the Lower House members' terms in September.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, is gearing up for a head-on collision with Aso and the ruling bloc to force an election. On Christmas Eve, the DPJ submitted a motion to the Diet urging Aso to dissolve the Lower House.

"I think the people are indignant about the irresponsible way Aso has ignored the public," DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa said. "We submitted that motion on behalf of the public, pressing for a dissolution as soon as possible."

The motion was easily voted down in the Lower House, where the ruling bloc holds a comfortable majority. But to Aso's shock, one member of the LDP, former administrative reform minister Yoshimi Watanabe, voted for the DPJ's bill.

The LDP and the government tried to put out the fire immediately by reprimanding Watanabe.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura brushed aside Watanabe's "revolt," calling it a "performance" with "no effect on the government."

But critics see it differently.

Watanabe's move "could cause the support rate for the Aso Cabinet to drop even lower by giving the impression it is a Cabinet that even its followers have given up on," said Meiji Gakuin's Kawakami, noting it may encourage other LDP lawmakers to rebel against their leader.

Watanabe has repeatedly stressed the need for a "political realignment" to be undertaken as soon as possible before the election. Given Aso's chronic unpopularity and the growing possibility that the LDP may indeed lose the crucial poll, such voices are likely to grow stronger.

Political analysts criticized LDP lawmakers for advocating a political realignment before the election.

The Congressional Forum for New Japan, a nonprofit organization made up of academics, corporate leaders, local government officials and journalists, issued a proposal in late December urging political parties to draft new platforms to provide a concrete vision of the future amid the unstable financial situation.

"Such short-sighted ideas and catchphrases like 'political realignment' will only fool the public," the proposal said. "The future of individual lawmakers should be put on the back burner. The public is only interested in the main direction policies are heading in and what will happen to the government responsible" for implementing them.

Whether it is before or after the general election, however, some in the LDP other than Watanabe have begun distancing themselves from Aso, including former LDP Vice President Taku Yamasaki, former Secretaries General Koichi Kato and Hidenao Nakagawa, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki.

Hideo Otake, a professor of political science at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, said Aso's situation is "pretty hopeless."

"Aso had a good start," Otake said. "But he just doesn't have (the strength) to push forward what he wants to do . . . he is just wandering from one side to another."

Political analysts agree Aso lacks leadership because of his "wavering" on policies. For example, he was keen on raising the tobacco tax to secure revenue, but gave up because of strong dissent within the party.

Also known for his numerous verbal gaffes, Aso has had to repeatedly apologize and retract statements in the last couple of months. Most recently, he insulted doctors by saying they "lack common sense." That angered the Japan Medical Association, which traditionally supports the LDP.

According to a Kyodo News survey, the Cabinet's 48.6 percent support rate in September plunged to 25.5 percent earlier this month, just over two months since being inaugurated.

"Aso emerged as the face of the LDP because everyone thought he would dissolve the Lower House and call an election immediately, before there was time for his faults to be exposed," Otake said. "But the longer he stayed on, the more negative things surfaced."

As head of the nation, Aso must choose between now and September to take a chance on an election. But pundits say no matter when he calls it, the LDP will probably lose its ruling party status, after running Japan almost uninterrupted since 1955.

"It may be better for the LDP in the long run if the DPJ comes to power," Otake said. "The LDP needs to rebuild itself because the party's system is falling apart."

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