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Saturday, March 28, 2009

With one budget OK'd and Aso planning another, when can poll be held?


Staff writer

With the fiscal 2009 budget and related bills safely passed, all eyes in Nagata-cho are trained on Prime Minister Taro Aso to see when he will dissolve the Lower House and call an election. But he is already pursuing an extra budget.

Voices within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are already trying to pull Aso in various directions — from a spring election, a late summer poll, to waiting until the end of the Lower House term in September. He is playing his cards close to his vest.

Critics say Aso's decision will probably be swayed by whether Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa quits over his chief secretary's recent indictment over illicit funds from Nishimatsu Construction Co.

Although DPJ executives have so far managed to get the ranks to support Ozawa's decision Tuesday to stay on, some in the party are still calling for his quick exit so the DPJ does not appear tainted by corruption ahead of the election.

As public discontent has shifted from Aso's gaffes and flip-flops to Ozawa and his links to shady money, the DPJ's setback is working in the prime minister's favor.

A Kyodo News survey released Thursday revealed that Aso's support rate jumped to 23.7 percent, up 7.7 points from a poll earlier this month.

"I definitely think Aso was partly saved by the scandal," said Etsushi Tanifuji, a professor of political science at Waseda University. "The people's interest shifted — the media moved their focus from the Aso Cabinet's low support rate and future outlook to the DPJ's leadership and whether the party can maintain solidarity."

But Tanifuji warned that this reversal of fortunes is too unsteady to guarantee a positive outlook for the LDP, noting the support rate for the party remains low.

The Aso Cabinet's increased support rate is only temporary, Tanifuji said, especially if Ozawa steps down. The same Kyodo survey revealed that 66.6 percent of respondents thought Ozawa should resign.

"If Ozawa were to actually quit after gauging the shift in public opinion, I think the people's attention will go right back to the Aso administration," said Tanifuji. "Right now, it is a battle to see which way the wind blows."

The LDP is not immune to the Nishimatsu scandal. The contractor's shady ties to a political fundraising body of trade minister Toshihiro Nikai are also being scrutinized, although no arrests have been made.

Political analysts say that if Ozawa quits, Nikai would have a hard time staying in the Cabinet.

"People will turn against the LDP, seeing that it hasn't changed anything, while the DPJ dealt with crisis management," Tanifuji said. "And that will bring the Aso Cabinet back to (where it was) before the Nishimatsu scandal broke," when its support rate was barely above 10 percent.

Against this backdrop, deliberations on the fiscal 2009 budget and related bills went relatively smoothly, as both the LDP and DPJ kept their heads down to dodge further scandal.

Keio University professor Yoshiaki Kobayashi slammed both parties for not holding thorough discussions in the Diet.

"With the current economic decline, this can't be called a normal situation. Discussing how to effectively use the budget is now extremely important," Kobayashi said. "But instead of discussing the key points, the Diet is just approving anything."

But Kobayashi said he did not think this situation will last.

"The LDP and DPJ are in the eye of the storm," Kobayashi said. "Both parties are waiting for their wounds to heal . . . but I don't think the situation is going to end here."

If Nikai were to step down, he would become the second minister to resign in the current Aso Cabinet, following former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, who quit after appearing drunk and half-asleep at a news conference after the Group of Seven meeting in Rome.

Also, Senior Vice Finance Minister Koichi Hirata resigned Thursday for selling ¥616 million worth of stocks at double their market value, despite an ethics code prohibiting people in his position from trading in stocks.

If Nikai also resigns, "people will want to hold Aso responsible for the appointments," Kobayashi said. "And if this happens, it is unlikely he will call an election anytime soon."

Cabinet-linked scandal notwithstanding, Aso appears eager to stay on as long as possible.

Reporters and lawmakers have asked him when he will call the election, but Aso has snubbed them and placed emphasis on more economic stimulus measures, including an extra budget for fiscal 2009.

Analysts, however, call the stimulus ploys mere "life-support" for Aso that, once turned off, will see him out of power.

Waseda's Tanifuji said no matter what policies Aso puts forward, they won't have the public's backing.

"Strong leadership is necessary," he said. "The only (salvation) for Aso is to call an election."



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