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Early election plot thickens

The ripples of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s hint in a recent speech at an early dissolution of the Lower House and a general election seems to have spread to leading figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The LDP’s election campaign chairman, Makoto Koga, suggested the election will take place before yearend; his deputy, Yoshihide Suga, concurred, saying now is the time to dissolve the Lower House; Bunmei Ibuki, the party’s all-powerful secretary general, said calling an early election might be a good tactic if the Japanese economy is in good shape.

It should be noted, however, that these comments are not merely intended as a forecast but as an attempt to jolt the political landscape and prepare lawmakers for an election so that they’re not content to just wait around for the current tenure of Lower House members to run out in August next year.

Interestingly, though, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who has the prerogative to dissolve the Lower House, has a diametrically opposed view. He said this is no time to talk about elections because both the executive and legislative branches of government face urgent tasks.

For the LDP, a nightmare scenario would be to fight a nationwide election under the leadership of Fukuda, whose rate of approval has dwindled fast with no recovery in sight. In other words, Fukuda has already been incapacitated.

Then there’s the scenario in which Fukuda steps down toward the end of May, clearing the way for his successor to host the summit meeting of the Group of Eight nations in Hokkaido and to call a general election. But who would be that successor? Former Foreign Minister Taro Aso appears to be a favorite, but former Defense Minister Yuriko Koike may surprise everybody by becoming Japan’s first female prime minister with the backing of Koizumi.

Fukuda took over the reins of government last year and sought to create a “grand coalition” between his LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan headed by Ichiro Ozawa. He thought this would be the way to reshape a Japanese political arena hampered by the split in the national Diet (the LDP and Komeito command a two-thirds majority in the Lower House while the DPJ and other opposition parties hold more than half the seats in the Upper House).

In the aftermath of the collapse of Fukuda’s grand coalition scheme, the LDP is in dire need of a working relationship with the DPJ in one form or another through a non-Ozawa route within the DPJ. The biggest stumbling block is that nobody within the LDP leadership appears able to oust him from the DPJ, with the possible exception of Koizumi himself.

The next question is how Koizumi would identify and attack Ozawa’s weaknesses. Although Ozawa keeps saying he would force Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, he is not at all certain that his party would win. His rhetoric for an early election is just a tactic to unite the party under his leadership.

The ultimate goal of Ozawa is to win support from all intraparty factions, get re-elected as the party leader uncontested in September and then work in earnest toward a general election in or after October.

One LDP scenario to counter this strategy would be to call a general election before September. The governing coalition may lose the two-thirds majority in the Lower House, but as long as the LDP wins more seats than the DPJ, Ozawa’s position within his own party would be weakened so much that he would not be able to seek re-election as DPJ leader.

Many business leaders, bureaucrats and politicians alike dread the prospect of the governing coalition losing the two-thirds majority in the Lower House because, under the Constitution, even if a legislative bill passed by the Lower House is rejected in the Upper House, the current ruling bloc in the Lower House has the legal power to supersede the Upper House’s decision. If a bill is passed for a second time by a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, it becomes law as though it passed both chambers.

But such fears are not necessarily warranted. To be realistic, the scenario of the Lower House reversing the Upper House decision by a two-thirds majority vote cannot go on forever. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the ruling bloc to end the antagonistic relationship with the DPJ by giving up its two-thirds majority in the Lower House. An ideal approach for the bloc would be to give up the two-thirds majority while winning DPJ cooperation free of Ozawa’s influence.

The dissolution of the Lower House is bound to come before yearend, but that will be at the hands of Fukuda’s successor. Former Foreign Minister Aso appears to be the front-runner in the race to succeed Fukuda, although he is not considered strong enough to compete head-on against Ozawa.

It is under these circumstances that Koizumi mentioned the name of Koike as “the candidate for the next prime minister.” So far, a majority within the political and business circles consider this a joke. It must not be forgotten, though, that Koizumi himself surprised just about everybody when he won the LDP presidency and the premiership in 2001.

According to the scenario envisaged by Koizumi, Fukuda will step down in late May or early June (after the international conference in Yokohama on assistance to Africa) to take responsibility for the political impasse.

The LDP presidency then will be fought between Aso, regarded as a political “thoroughbred,” and Koike, often referred to as a “wild horse.” The latter will win and become Japan’s first female head of government.

After hosting the G8 summit meeting in July, she will dissolve the Lower House and call a general election. The LDP will campaign under the slogan of working in harmony with the opposition camp (minus Ozawa).

Although the present coalition of the LDP and Komeito is set to lose its two-thirds majority in the Lower House, it nevertheless will win more seats than the DPJ, forcing Ozawa to resign.

The subsequent formation of a new coalition among the LDP, DPJ and Komeito will set the stage for the Diet to enact a series of important legislative measures such as tax reform, social security overhaul and a permanent law to dispatch the Self-Defense Force troops overseas — all of which have been held captive to a legislative standstill.

If this scenario doesn’t materialize, the only alternative is to stay with Fukuda for the foreseeable future. Yet, in such circumstances, his rate of approval would likely drop even further to a single digit.

Koizumi is aware of this, and that’s why he is serious about generating a mood for an early election, promoting a woman as a prime minister candidate, and ultimately toppling Ozawa from the most powerful position in the opposition camp.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political topics.