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LDP is running on empty

Amid the dwindling approval rate of Prime Minister Taro Aso, triggered by a series of gaffes coming out of his own mouth and by disgraceful behavior of his right-hand man in the international arena, the conventional wisdom would call either for him to resign and hand over the reins of government to Ichiro Ozawa of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), who in turn would dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, or for Aso and Ozawa to agree to dissolve the Lower House for an early election.

Neither of these scenarios appears likely to materialize, however, as Aso shows no intention whatsoever of stepping down or calling an election anytime soon. Moreover, even those members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who distance themselves from Aso are not keen on calling an early election, and are instead thinking of naming another clown to lead the party and the government.

One of the decisive factors that have caused Aso’s popularity to plummet was the state of apparent intoxication in which his closest colleague, then Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, spoke to the press in Rome on Feb. 14 following a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

It has long been an open secret in political circles that Nakagawa is a violent drunk, as was his father, Ichiro, who committed suicide in 1983 at the age of 57. According to a book written by a prominent reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, the young Nakagawa, then 29, drank heavily at the time of his father’s funeral. He is said to have sprayed whiskey from his mouth on his father’s face, screaming “Dad is sound asleep after taking sleeping pills.”

Referring to the fiasco in Rome, Aso said he did not know Nakagawa was a violent drunk. That comment, though, only served to exacerbate the doubt about his judgment in choosing his top lieutenants, thus further lowering the rate of approval for his government and accelerating the move within his own party to seek his resignation.

But even before Nakagawa’s behavior in Rome, Aso created another cause for public disapproval when he put his foot in his mouth during parliamentary deliberations Feb. 5. He stated that even though he was the internal affairs and communications minister under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, he was not in favor of privatizing the postal services but that he had to support the idea simply because he was a member of the Cabinet. He added that Heizo Takenaka was the minister in charge of postal privatization; therefore, it was a false accusation to say that he was in favor of the plan.

These statements are in total contradiction with what he said at an open debate Sept. 12 last year among those seeking to head the governing LDP in the aftermath of the sudden resignation of Shinzo Abe. Asked by Yuriko Koike, a rare female political heavyweight and former defense minister, if he thought privatizing the postal services was a failure, he replied, “I don’t want you to forget that I, as the internal affairs and communications minister, was fully in charge of privatizing the postal services.”

This bifurcated attitude of Aso became a favorite subject on TV programs as the most notorious of the series of gaffes he has made since taking power in September last year.

Former Prime Minister Koizumi, who championed postal privatization, subsequently told his followers that he was “dumbfounded” by the way Aso spoke on his pet theme. Koizumi went further by saying he would refrain from attending a plenary session of the Lower House for a second vote on the Aso- initiated program of giving every citizen a grant of either ¥12,000 or ¥20,000 in cash as an incentive to shore up personal consumption.

Koizumi supported Koike in the LDP presidential election last September, which was won overwhelmingly by Aso, who garnered 351 votes. Placing distant second was Kaoru Yosano, who replaced Nakagawa as finance minister after the fiasco, with 66 votes, followed by Koike with 46 votes. Deputy LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara had 37 votes and former Defense chief Shigeru Ishiba, 25 votes. Although the 46 votes won by Koike were more than expected, Koizumi ended up in the losing camp and announced his retirement from politics.

If there is to be another LDP leadership election, former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa looms large. As another protege of Koizumi’s, he is known for collecting more political contributions than any other prominent figure within the party. Those close to him say this would be his first and last opportunity to seek the top party post.

Aside from Koike and Hidenao Nakagawa, several names have been mentioned as likely candidates to replace Aso if he ever is forced to step down. They include Ishiba, Ishihara, former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, former Posts and Telecommunications Minister Minister Seiko Noda, incumbent Health-Labor- Welfare Minister Yoichi Mazuzoe, and Finance Minister Yosano.

Of them, Ishiba and Ishihara had the track records to challenge Aso last year, but neither seems to have solid support within the party. If Tanigaki and Komura run, they may be able to change the LDP presidential election from a popularity contest to a more serious arena for policy discussions among veterans. But neither has shown any interest in succeeding Aso this time. Machimura heads the most powerful intraparty faction, but is often accused of riding on the strength of his faction. Noda, who became the first female postal minister in 1998 at the age of 37, has popular appeal but no organized support within the party. The same can be said of Masuzoe.

That leaves Yosano as the only viable figure to lead the LDP and the government in the short term. Doubts remain about his health conditions, though, as he has suffered throat cancer. Although he may possibly be named to the top post on a makeshift basis, he is not regarded by many as being capable of leading the party and battling the DPJ in the upcoming general election, which must take place no later than September.

All these observations seem to lead to the conclusion that neither the pro-Aso nor the anti-Aso group within the LDP seems to have anyone who can be relied on to win the election. Under those circumstances, the only alternatives left are for (1) Aso to hand over the government to the DPJ or (2) the LDP and DPJ to agree on dissolving the Lower House and holding a general election soon.

It is urgent that citizens be asked to cast their ballots to decide which party should come to power. Absent that, no effective policy can be implemented.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.