Aso forced to act by mutinous ranks in LDP

by Masami Ito

Prime Minister Taro Aso had no choice but to dissolve the Lower House to contain anti-Aso members of his own party, even though public support for him and the Liberal Democratic Party are at a critically low level, experts said.

Fighting off the strong movement within his own party to oust him, Aso, who has been repeatedly criticized for his policy and statement flip-flops, stood firm and dissolved the chamber Tuesday, setting the general election for Aug. 30, a move analysts called suicidal amid the LDP’s public disfavor.

Political analyst Eiken Itagaki said Aso may have acted too hastily, pointing out that he should have taken more time to rebuild his party before dissolving the Lower House.

“It is more than a risk, it is rather suicidal,” Itagaki said. Aso “may have acted too hastily, but I guess the prime minister may have thought that it would be the end of the line if he was replaced with a new president (of the LDP).”

The anti-Aso movement reached its height last week, immediately after he announced that he would dissolve the Lower House on Tuesday. At the center of the moves to bring him down were key LDP lawmakers, including former Secretaries General Hidenao Nakagawa, Tsutomu Takebe and Koichi Kato.

Takebe ripped Aso’s decision to dissolve the chamber now, saying it lacked legitimacy.

“This (dissolution) is historically unprecedented,” Takebe said last week. “Unfortunately, the people will view the dissolution as a big mess.”

Critics said Aso wanted to dissolve the chamber as soon as possible to stop lawmakers like Takebe from bringing him down.

The reason Aso chose to move sooner rather that later “was only to contain the oust-Aso movement and to satisfy his own pride after continuously saying that he would dissolve the chamber himself at an appropriate time,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

Kawakami added that the anti-Aso camp had legitimate criticism.

“The anti-Aso group has a reasonable point — (Aso) did waver too much,” he said. “I think that Aso is responsible for not being firm enough.”

For the Democratic Party of Japan, the timing of the dissolution could hardly be better.

In fact, the LDP’s Nakagawa pointed out last week that dissolving the chamber now was in the DPJ’s interest.

“Who is seeking a dissolution now? It is the DPJ,” Nakagawa said. “I think it is a bit wrong to dissolve the chamber in a way that would benefit the DPJ.”

Analysts agreed that if nothing goes drastically wrong in the coming days, the DPJ could well win control of the government.

“With its leader (Yukio) Hatoyama and the party gaining momentum through victories in local elections, it is good timing for the DPJ to aim for a change in government power,” Kawakami said.

Most notable among local elections, the DPJ won a landslide in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race July 12, seizing the No. 1 position in the assembly from the LDP.

A recent Kyodo News survey showed that 39 percent of respondents hoped to have a government led by the DPJ, while only 15 percent opted for the LDP.

But DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada warned that it is too early to be optimistic because there is still a lot of time until the election.

“You never know what is going to happen — we’ve experienced that even just the slightest difference in the direction of the wind could cause a major change,” Okada said. “I am asking our candidates not to get carried away and to sincerely propose our policies to the public.”

Itagaki, the political analyst, suggested that one way Aso could make a comeback would be to get rid of those who stand in his way, just as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did in 2005 when some party members opposed his postal privatization plan.

Itagaki said that the situation for the LDP could greatly change if Aso were to make such a bold stab at leadership.

“The LDP is on the verge of becoming the opposition party and the prime minister should change and take a more forcible approach,” Itagaki said. “Aso needs to get rid of those who are shaking up his system — and whether he can do that or not will be his final test.”