A serious schism has developed within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Taro Aso between those who demand an early general election and those who favor waiting for the political and economic situation to improve so that the party has a better chance of winning.
This situation resembles a bitter disagreement that existed among Japan’s top military leaders in the closing days of the Pacific War as to how to meet the American forces approaching Okinawa. One group sought to launch a decisive battle while the other thought the final showdown should be delayed as much as possible. This discord and the resulting indecisiveness resulted in the death of nearly 190,000 Japanese citizens, half of them civilians.
After Aso was elected LDP president Sept. 20 and named prime minister four days later, a general consensus among politicians in both the ruling coalition and the opposition camp was that he had long made up his mind to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election within a matter of weeks rather than months. That there were grounds for such speculation was proved by an article Aso contributed to the monthly Bungei Shunju magazine, which appeared on bookstore shelves Oct. 10. In that article, he unequivocally stated that he had made up his mind to call an early election.
In parliamentary debate and elsewhere, however, he now insists that he has no thought whatsoever of dissolving the Lower House.
Pressed on the contradiction between what he says now and what he wrote in the magazine, he has conceded that only after assuming the premiership had he learned that the timing of calling an election is dictated by circumstances that change daily. Under the Constitution, only the prime minister has the prerogative to dissolve the Lower House.
The principal factor making Aso so hesitant is the outcome of an opinion poll conducted by the LDP from Sept. 22 to 27 in an attempt to assess how each of the party’s respective candidates stands in the 300 single-seat constituencies throughout the nation.
This large-scale survey, with some 1,000 samples taken in each precinct, showed that only between 106 and 140 LDP candidates stand a fair chance of being elected. Even with another 57 to 65 candidates who can be counted on to win in proportionate representation, the maximum number of seats the party could hope for in the Lower House would be 205, far short of 304 seats it commands at present.
At the worst, the number could dwindle to 163. Even assuming that the junior coalition party of Komeito will maintain the present force of 31 representatives, the coalition total would come to no more than 236, well below a majority in the 480-seat Lower House.
At the urging of close lieutenants, Aso decided in early October not to call a general election in the immediate future. Instead, he would direct his power and energy to shoring up the Japanese economy through aggressive spending.
In mid-October, however, a demand for an early showdown with the opposition camp by way of an election campaign came from the largest LDP intraparty faction, headed by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura. This position was supported by ranking members of the faction including former Prime Ministers Yoshio Mori and Shinzo Abe as well as party secretary general Hiroyuki Hosoda. They argued that former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a member of the same faction, had resigned to clear the way for his successor to call an early general election.
About a half of the 57 Lower House members belonging to the Machimura faction are in their first or second term. They fear if the election is delayed much longer, their campaign funds will dry up. An opinion poll published by the Yomiuri Shimbun on Oct. 13 showed that the Aso Cabinet’s approval rating had gone down further. But Hosoda, in meeting with a French journalist the following day, emphasized the need for dissolving the Lower House and calling a general election as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Mori told a rally meeting for a junior member of the Machimura faction that it would be most reasonable to assume that the nation would go to polls before the end of November. At a general meeting of his faction Oct. 16, Machimura said he sensed from political circles that the election would take place in the middle or toward the end of November.
This call for the balloting to take place in November has been echoed by Komeito and its religious parent body, Soka Gakkai, both of which have long prepared for an early election. Speaking in the same voice are a number of heavyweights within the LDP such as Mikio Aoki, former secretary general for the Upper House; Makoto Koga, chairman of the Election Campaign Committee; and Tadamori Oshima, chairman of the Diet Policy Committee.
Despite calls for an early election from many directions, Aso and his close aides remain determined to wait for the political climate to change more favorably for the LDP. Technically, Aso is under no legal obligation to dissolve the Lower House before the tenure of current members expires next Sept. 10. In other words, he has another 10 months to wait for the nation’s political, economic and social conditions to change in favor of his government and party before exercising his prerogative.
If such change does not come about, Aso may do nothing and let the election go on automatically when the terms of the Lower House members expire.
Sixty-three years after Japanese military leaders split over strategy to meet the U.S. invasion of Okinawa, the LDP is split right in the middle between its leaders favoring an early election and Aso waiting for a change in the tide.
Regardless of what Aso ultimately does, the intraparty confrontation will not disappear. It is utterly uncertain whether the party will learn a lesson from the tragedy in Okinawa and steer itself in a right direction. One thing is certain, however: Japanese politics will continue to drift in uncharted waters.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering the Japanese political, social and economic scene.
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