Prime Minister Taro Aso embarked Friday on the new task of delivering on a ¥56.8 trillion economic stimulus package, again leaving the key question of when he might dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election up in the air.
Aso’s move, which follows a recent swing in political fortunes due to opposition chief Ichiro Ozawa’s fundraising scandal, unleashed a new wave of speculation over when the general election, which must be held by fall, will be called.
Some political observers said one option for Aso and his Liberal Democratic Party is to dissolve the Lower House in May for an election, while the Democratic Party of Japan struggles with the fallout of the indictment of Ozawa’s top aide, Takanori Okubo, over shady political donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co.
Aso himself recently suggested he might base the timing of the poll on the opposition’s response in Diet deliberations on the fiscal 2009 extra budget bill needed to carry out the stimulus measures.
His remark prompted many in the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc to speculate on when the poll will come.
Some argue it should be held around the time the extra budget bill clears the Diet, although it remains unclear when that will be, while others believe an election won’t take place until Aso returns from the Group of Eight summit in Italy in July.
“When it comes to Aso or Ozawa, Ozawa is facing a tougher time right now, while Aso has been making progress, so I understand why an early election is one choice for the LDP,” said Hiroshi Hirano, a professor of political science at Gakushuin University.
But Hirano questioned if Aso is seriously considering to call an election in May.
“Aso made his remark simply because if he did not say anything about the election, people would assume it won’t be held until the (September) end of the Lower House’s term,” Hirano said.
Aso’s intention in bringing up the poll may have been to remind the public, as well as political circles, that he alone has the authority to dissolve the Lower House, and he won’t give in to pressure from friends or foes, Hirano said.
His view was echoed by Nobuhiro Hiwatari, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science.
Hiwatari said Aso is unlikely to call an election while the extra budget bill is being deliberated in the Diet.
He said Aso’s aim was probably to remind his fellow LDP members that the party will run in the election under his leadership.
Some in the LDP, including former Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe, have openly urged the party to choose a new leader amid Aso’s disastrous approval ratings.
Aso’s will to stay in his post, however, has apparently prevailed among LDP ranks. Takebe himself recently changed his position and said he would agree to face the election under Aso, providing it is held soon.
“LDP members appear to have reached a basic consensus that the party will face the election under Aso,” following Aso’s remark, Hiwatari said.
The Nishimatsu scandal and its effect on the DPJ’s poll ratings have meanwhile made the top opposition party less vocal about demanding an early poll.
According to a recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 66 percent of respondents said they don’t see any justifiable reason for Ozawa to stay on as DPJ president.
Since the DPJ’s focus turned to dealing with the scandal, it has also become less confrontational at the Diet and may not be in an ideal position for an early election.
However, Ozawa himself appears confident of winning.
“I don’t know about the future, but if we ask for the people’s will now, I am certain we can change the government,” Ozawa said Tuesday, noting the DPJ is ready for the election whenever it takes place.
Naoto Kan, the DPJ’s acting president, concurred with Ozawa Thursday, saying, “There is no need to be afraid of the election.”
Behind the DPJ executives’ bullish remarks is the party’s strategy of portraying the poll as a choice between changing the government and maintaining the status quo, Gakushuin University’s Hirano said.
When it comes to a poll, “ways to frame the election” and “how voters perceive it” are two key factors, he said.
The DPJ may still believe it can prevail under Ozawa, providing it can successfully keep the focus of the election on the issue of changing the government, Hirano said.
But the University of Tokyo’s Hiwatari is skeptical.
Now that Ozawa has decided to stay on as party president, he has no choice but to appear confident and hold the party together, he said.
“It will be difficult for the DPJ to act the same way as it did before the Nishimatsu incident,” Hiwatari said, noting Ozawa also is no longer actively visiting electoral districts.