Aso pulls plug on Lower House

Stage set for Aug. 30 election showdown with DPJ

by Masami Ito and Alex Martin

Prime Minister Taro Aso played his ultimate trump card Tuesday and dissolved the Lower House, turning a deaf ear to vociferous opponents of the move from within his own party.

The Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan have now entered a head-on battle for the helm of government in an election that many expect will see the LDP stripped of its decades-long grip on power.

Aso’s Cabinet approved setting the general election for Aug. 30. It will be the first postwar Lower House campaign held in the heat of August.

“I have dissolved the Lower House to ask the people which political party can safeguard their well-being,” Aso told a news conference to mark the end of the Diet session.

While emphasizing his accomplishments in fighting the recession, he also apologized for “amplifying public distrust on politics caused by my poorly prepared remarks,” referring to a series of gaffes and policy flip-flops.

During a morning meeting, Aso’s bid to dissolve the chamber was approved by all of his ministers, including Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, who earlier indicated he might not sign the dissolution paper.

In order for the Lower House to be dissolved, approval from all Cabinet ministers is necessary. Refusal would prompt dismissal of the minister in question and the prime minister signing instead.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura quoted Aso as telling the Cabinet that members of the LDP “are responsible for creating a safe and energetic society for the future.”

“We need further cooperation and understanding from the people,” Aso said. “And that is why I would like to dissolve the chamber and seek the people’s judgment.”

Following the Cabinet’s move, the LDP held a meeting of all its Diet members, during which Aso apologized for triggering public distrust with his policy miscues.

“I am deeply sorry for my statements and the flip-flops that triggered public anxiety and distrust in politics, resulting in the drop in the LDP’s support rate,” he said.

During the meeting, which was originally going to be closed to the media because party executives feared Aso would be exposed to harsh criticism from his foes, he also recognized that the devastating defeat in the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race and other recent LDP losses in local elections were partially a reflection of his inability to lead and unite the party.

“It is an undeniable fact that the people’s evaluation of me and the LDP’s internal disarray had a negative impact” on the recent local elections, Aso said. “I am also sorry for my lack of power to bring the party together.”

Despite the LDP executives’ fears, the meeting went relatively smoothly and most of the statements by lawmakers were supportive of Aso and called for party unity before the election.

Hideaki Omura, an LDP Lower House lawmaker, stood and reminded his colleagues their true foe is the DPJ.

“Everyone, our enemy is the populist party, the opposition party, the DPJ,” Omura shouted during the meeting. “Japan cannot move forward if we don’t crush the DPJ.”

After hearing the voices of strong support from his party, Aso, in tears, said he believed the LDP had come together.

“I only have one wish — I hope that all of the candidates for the Lower House general election present today will be back together,” Aso said. “To do this, there is nothing else to do but unite and fight together.”

Afterward, former Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, who had been a key player in anti-Aso movement, complimented him for his apology and said the meeting helped promote party solidarity.

“I always believed it was of the utmost importance for (Aso) to express his remorse and apologize to the public, so it was good that he articulated this,” Nakagawa said.

Before the meeting, Nakagawa and other lawmakers had called on LDP executives to hold a joint plenary that could have led to a decision to hold a party presidential election to pick a new leader. The request was denied, and a regular meeting was held instead.

“I’ll be a good sport and help support” party unity, Nakagawa said.

Koichi Kato, another prominent LDP lawmaker involved in the effort to oust Aso, said the election will be “special.”

“In the worst-case scenario, this could well be the last election for the LDP,” he said, indicating the party might end up disbanding. “There’s a strong wind blowing against us, and if we don’t give it everything we have, there might not be a next one.”