Just four years ago the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was flying high with strong public support under then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Now, its historic victory in the last Lower House general election now just a memory, the LDP couldn’t be in a worse state, poised to be toppled from power by the Democratic Party of Japan in the Aug. 30 election.

Plagued by gaffes and flip-flops, Prime Minister Taro Aso, the LDP president, has seen his support rate drop from virtually the moment he took office almost a year ago, taking his party down with him.

By last month, resentment had reached such a fever pitch that some key LDP lawmakers, including former Secretaries General Hidenao Nakagawa and Tsutomu Takebe, started plotting to oust Aso. Faction leaders and LDP heavyweights, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura and LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda among them, on the other hand, desperately tried to put out the fire.

What was for a long time the strongest party is now crippled by internal strife.

“I think one of the key points in this upcoming general election is that the people will be handing down judgment on the past four years of LDP rule,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University. “Looking back, the public will have a stronger impression of the LDP kicking own goals with various Cabinet ministers resigning instead of what the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc did for them.”

Aso may be unpopular now. But only last September, he won a landslide victory in the party’s presidential election.

Etsushi Tanifuji, a professor of political science at Waseda University, credits Aso’s win to simple name recognition and not actual support based on his evaluation in opinion polls.

“In opinion polls, it is often said that you have to separate (the candidate’s) recognizability from the support rate because (recognition) isn’t (necessarily) about appreciating ability,” Tanifuji said. “So when it came to choosing the (next) leader after (Yasuo) Fukuda, Aso’s name came up because he had previously run in the party presidential election.”

And once the prime minister loses popularity, he becomes a liability to the party, Tanifuji said. Before Aso’s prime ministership, there was Fukuda, and before him Shinzo Abe, the first to be installed by the party, in lieu of a general election, after Koizumi exited. They all had a good start, but that didn’t last.

When Abe took over from Koizumi, his public support rate was nearly 70 percent. But with each succeeding — and annual — leadership change the numbers have steadily declined. Fukuda started with a support rate of nearly 60 percent but by the time it was Aso’s turn last September, the rate was about 50 percent. The most recent Kyodo News survey released Monday put the Aso Cabinet support rate at 18.5 percent.

During this period, the LDP has become extremely vulnerable and sensitive to public support rates.

One reason may be the way LDP presidents are selected. Past chiefs, at least until Yoshiro Mori, who held office until 2001, were selected based on factional give-and-take, and most were the head of the strongest faction at the time.

Since Koizumi, however, things have changed, and the party now appears to put more weight on candidates’ popularity, focusing on who can capture the hearts of voters rather than their factional backing and ability to exert power over their fellow lawmakers.

“Because the chosen leaders depended on (voter) popularity to be elected (by LDP ranks as) prime minister, it is inevitable for (members) to try and bring the leader down (once unpopularity sets in),” Tanifuji noted.

Meanwhile, LDP watchers agree the party has brought most of its troubles on itself, with key members and Cabinet ministers committing verbal gaffes, getting embroiled in political funds scandals and generally making bad decisions.

Koizumi led the LDP to a 296-seat victory in the 480-seat Lower House in September 2005. He had one goal: to privatize the postal services. And despite strong opposition from within the LDP, he refused to budge and pulled it off.

After Koizumi stepped down in September 2006, the relatively youthful Abe stepped in. In short order his popularity had evaporated and he was gone.

Within months off his inauguration, Abe made the mistake of allowing back into the party 11 “postal reform rebels” who had been forced out for opposing Koizumi’s postal privatization bid.

“I think it was extremely difficult for the public to understand why Abe let (the rebels) back in,” Kawakami said. “From the viewpoint of voters, it was seen just as a way to let back in the people who had strong backing in their electoral districts.”

Another major blow for Abe was the series of political funds scandals and verbal gaffes of key LDP lawmakers and Cabinet ministers. In just 10 months, three in his Cabinet had to be replaced, including his agriculture minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who committed suicide amid unexplained enormous office expenses and allegations that he had ties with an organization involved in bid-rigging.

Abe stepped down out of the blue less than two months after the LDP lost its majority in the July 2007 Upper House election, and the baton was passed to Fukuda, the son of the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.

Struggling with a divided Diet and unable to pass legislation, Fukuda even entertained the idea of forming a “grand coalition” with the DPJ. Although then DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa agreed at first, he was overruled by other DPJ executives. After that, the DPJ furiously attacked Fukuda over various bills.

“In Fukuda’s case, he didn’t kick too many own goals,” Kawakami said. “It was more that he gave up without doing much. Things may have been different if he had been more tenacious.”

And, like Abe, Fukuda all of a sudden announced his resignation in September 2008.

By the time it was Aso’s turn, the public had grown weary of the lack of leadership. And the longer he postponed dissolving the Lower House, the lower his support rate dropped.

“Instead of seeking the judgment of the people, the LDP just lazily switched leaders from Abe to Fukuda to Aso,” Tanifuji said. “And people are now thinking this is a time for change. It is not so much that the people have high expectations of the DPJ. They instead just want to change government power.”

But even if the LDP tumbles to the opposition, it won’t be the end of the party. Some say it would be a good lesson and the party still has a chance to be “reborn.”

Kawakami of Meiji Gakuin University said the party still has plenty of human resources to produce a new generation of leaders who are focused on policies and vision rather than relying on media attention to gain popularity.

“Even if it becomes an opposition party, the LDP can use its strong organizational power, which is superior to the DPJ’s, and strengthen its efforts to listen to public opinion,” he said. “It is definitely possible for the party to retake the helm of government as long as Japan maintains the single-seat constituencies.”

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