Prime Minister Taro Aso’s ¥2 trillion cash handout program, his key stimulus plan, is under threat after former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, arguably Japan’s most popular lawmaker, openly dismissed its importance.
During a Liberal Democratic Party executive meeting on postal privatization Thursday, Koizumi not only expressed disdain over Aso’s recent verbal gaffes and policy flip-flops, but went on to criticize the handout program.
“I don’t think (the bills for the fiscal 2008 extra budget) should be passed” by holding a revote in the Lower House, Koizumi said Thursday, hinting he may openly oppose the Aso-backed bills.
The political fate of Aso, whose support rate is at critically low levels, to a large extent depends on the cash handout program being a success, analysts said. This explains why he is desperate to pass the bills for the fiscal 2008 extra budget necessary to expedite the program.
Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan, said a failure to achieve the handouts would doom Aso.
“The final blow for Aso would be if some LDP lawmakers go against him and reject the cash handout program,” Shiratori said. “If that happens, Aso will surely reach a dead end and have to do what no one (in the LDP) wants him to do — dissolve the Lower House” and call a general election.
The support rate for Aso and his Cabinet is plunging, with the latest Kyodo News survey putting it at just 18.1 percent, and LDP lawmakers are trying to put off an election until things turn around.
The cash handout program was originally supposed to attract voters by distributing ¥12,000 to each individual, including registered foreigners, and an extra ¥8,000 for those 18 or younger and 65 or older. But recent media polls show the majority of the public are against it.
It is not only opposition party members who oppose it. Members of the ruling LDP are divided and Koizumi’s negative comment could further boost momentum of an anti-Aso movement in the party.
The related bills were rammed through the Lower House last month and are now under deliberation in the opposition-controlled Upper House. Although the bills are likely to be rejected in that chamber, they can be passed with a two-thirds majority, which the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition currently holds, in a revote in the Lower House.
Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP Upper House lawmaker who was present at Thursday’s meeting, denied that the gathering was to advocate an anti-Aso movement.
Thursday’s meeting “was neither to go against Aso nor to bring him down,” Yamamoto said. “I think it will become a driving force for Aso to hand down the right decision.”
But another LDP lawmaker who attended the meeting said on condition of anonymity that if the talks had included all the party’s lawmakers instead of being limited to executives, it would “really have become a movement to topple” the Aso Cabinet.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told a news conference Friday morning that Aso should take Koizumi’s comments as “a pep talk” and continue moving forward.
“We don’t have time to let (Koizumi’s words) be the cause of internal strife . . . we need to overcome these difficult times,” Kawamura said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, was cool in its response to the LDP’s internal squabble.
“There is a big crack in the LDP and it cannot be repaired,” DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said. “The people have high hopes for the DPJ . . . and they will not be fooled even if the LDP tries to deceive them just by replacing its leader,” as it has in the past.
He added that the Upper House vote for the related bills for the fiscal 2008 extra budget will be put off until Koizumi returns from his trip to Russia on Feb. 20, apparently to give Koizumi and other LDP lawmakers enough time to rebel against Aso in the Lower House second vote.
Political analyst Shiratori pointed out that one way for Aso to ensure that the wavering LDP lawmakers stay on board would be to threaten to dissolve the Lower House and call an immediate election.
Shiratori explained that the LDP lawmakers realize they are in a tough spot and don’t want to face a general election under an unpopular leader.