Aso fate rides on Tokyo showdown

by Masami Ito

The election campaign for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly that kicked off Friday is the preliminary battle for the looming Lower House election and could determine the fate of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Cabinet, analysts said.

Voting for the assembly will take place July 12, while the other ongoing political showdown, the Shizuoka gubernatorial election, will be decided Sunday. Victory is vital for Aso in both elections, said Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University.

“Aso’s leadership is on the line,” Tanifuji said. “If the Liberal Democratic Party (candidates lose in) both polls, it is certain that the oust-Aso movement will gain momentum.”

Aso and the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc look like they are in for a rough ride in the metro race amid strong public criticism of the unpopular prime minister. The key issue is whether they can maintain their majority in the assembly.

Aso and some of his allies, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, have been arguing that poor results in local-level polls should be viewed separately from a national poll, in an attempt to minimize the impact on the ruling bloc of a poor outcome.

“A local election is a local election and it is different from a national election,” Aso claimed during a news conference last week. “I don’t think the results of (local polls) will immediately have any effect” on the general election.

Suffering a drastically low support rating, Aso has been struggling to display leadership. But earlier this week, he backed down from an attempt to reshuffle the lineup of the LDP’s leadership after strong protests from within his party.

The last trump card Aso holds as prime minister is the right to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election.

Many LDP and New Komeito lawmakers are urging Aso to push back the Lower House’s dissolution until around July 28, the end of the current extended Diet session. Aso himself is said to envision dissolving the lower chamber immediately after the metro assembly race and holding an election by early August.

However, this schedule has met with opposition from some in New Komeito, which has repeatedly stressed that the metro assembly race must not overlap with the general election so the party can focus all of its energy on the Tokyo battle.

“We cannot accept” Aso’s plan to hold an election in early August, a New Komeito executive said on condition of anonymity. “We say the election should be held Aug. 30 at the earliest.”

The Tokyo race is important for New Komeito because the party is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, and Tokyo is the religious group’s home base.

Various LDP heavyweights have also begun to argue that Aso should wait until the Diet passes key legislation, including the organ transplant bill that is being deliberated on in the Upper House and a bill to inspect vessels sailing to or from North Korea that is still being drafted.

But all of this could turn around if the ruling bloc loses its majority in the metro election, something Kawamura declared Friday would signal defeat. “I personally think the (victory) line would basically be for the LDP and New Komeito to (hold onto) a majority,” he said.

Key LDP members, including former Secretaries General Hidenao Nakagawa and Tsutomu Takebe, as well as newer LDP lawmakers are already calling for Aso to step down. Critics said the movement to oust him will only intensify if the ruling bloc loses its majority.

But Aso is already the fourth prime minister since the last Lower House election in 2005, when the LDP won a landslide victory under the leadership of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. His successor, Shinzo Abe, and Abe’s successor, Yasuo Fukuda, both quit out of the blue after serving one year each.

Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University, said that even if popular figures like health minister Yoichi Masuzoe or Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru take the helm at the LDP before the general poll, the tactic is not likely to work because there have been too many changes of leadership since the last Lower House poll.

“Switching leaders is no longer going to work,” Sone said. “Whether the LDP chooses someone like Masuzoe or Higashikokubaru, it won’t be able to use the momentum of the presidential election to pave way for (a victory) in the general election.”

While the LDP continues to stumble along in a state of disarray, its main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan, is also rushing to put out a fire over DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama’s political funds scandal.

Earlier this week, Hatoyama admitted his political funds management body made false statements in its funding reports by using the names of people who are deceased or have denied making any contributions.

The LDP sees the scandal as an opening to attack the DPJ and turn the tide. But the New Komeito executive was not so optimistic.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “But it is not going to be (strong enough) to change the wind blowing against Aso to a favorable one.”