Commentary / World

Is Aso only postponing the inevitable?

Falling approval ratings, economic woes persuade prime minister to ignore early election calls

by ryudada and Norihiko Narita

The political news that will have the most far-reaching repercussions into the new year is the plummeting approval rating of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Cabinet, and his delay in dissolving the Lower House of the Diet for a general election.

Immediately after its inauguration in September, the Aso Cabinet enjoyed an approval rating of around 50 percent, although the figure differed slightly depending on which newspaper or TV network poll you were looking at.

The popularity of the Cabinet was lower than Aso’s predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, had expected. Battered by the opposition and falling approval ratings, Fukuda had resigned with the hope that people’s expectations for the new prime minister would boost the Cabinet’s approval rating, enabling the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House and face a general election with some confidence.

In its last days, the approval rating of the Fukuda Cabinet hovered around 20 percent — the level regarded as “dangerous waters” for any Cabinet hoping to survive — and was below 20 percent in some surveys. But despite his relatively better approval rating, Aso apparently decided to ditch Fukuda’s script and improvise.

It is clear from an article by Aso that appeared in a monthly magazine shortly after his Cabinet’s inauguration that he intended to almost immediately dissolve the Lower House for a general election. He wrote the article while campaigning for the LDP presidency.

Aso explained he postponed the dissolution because the global financial crisis led him to think that adopting economic measures was more important than holding a general election. But a widely held view is that the postponement was because an LDP study of voter preferences in each constituency showed that the party would have a tough time winning a general election.

And yet a delay does not guarantee that the situation in constituencies will improve for the LDP. From the outset, people who know Aso well, including newspaper reporters who have covered him for a long time, feared that the postponement of the dissolution would only result in prolonging the period in which Aso’s abilities would be exposed and tested.

He had another chance to dissolve the chamber Oct. 30 because it was expected that a supplementary budget for fiscal 2008 to implement economic stimulus measures, a revision bill for the law to inject capital into regional financial institutions and a bill to continue the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean would be enacted on that day. But Aso let the day pass, and the fears of those who know him well were realized.

As time went on, people came to question Aso’s ability to lead the government because of his tendency to flip-flop on policy-related statements when he faces resistance from Cabinet members and ruling bloc officials, his lack of basic culture as shown by his frequent misreading of kanji characters and his many gaffes, which included saying: “Many doctors lack common sense in terms of social norms.”

His idea of distributing a cash benefit to each household as part of an economic stimulus package was unpopular with people. The reason Aso won the LDP presidential election was that despite having a political pedigree as a grandson of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, he was popular with young people because of his familiarity with “manga” comic culture and contemporary slang, and it was hoped that he would attract voters as the new “face” of the LDP. But perhaps he spent too much time reading manga because he often appears to lack the basic knowledge that a prime minister needs, as well as the ability to make proper judgments and decisions in the arena of real politics.

The approval rating for the Aso Cabinet leveled off in October and November. The reason that the approval rating plummeted all at once in surveys in December is that people’s negative assessment of Aso concerning his quality and behavior as prime minister surpassed a threshold.

If an accumulated reaction to a certain object surpasses a threshold, a great change happens in one breath. For example, if the amount of an antibody reacting to pollen surpasses a threshold, it triggers hay fever. The important thing to keep in mind is that once an approval rating falls all at once below a threshold, it is almost impossible to get it to bounce back. It’s like hay fever. Once you have it, it can’t be easily cured.

The fall of Aso’s popularity with less than a year before the expiration of Lower House members’ terms has sent a shock wave through the ruling bloc. People have criticized the LDP because three of its lawmakers in succession — Shinzo Abe, Fukuda and Aso — became prime minister without fighting a general election.

The last general election was in September 2005. At that time, the LDP, led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won an overwhelming victory. If the LDP produces a fourth prime minister without going to the country, the people will forsake it. So the party has no alternative but to head into a general election under Aso’s leadership.

Faced with such a prospect, Diet members are looking to their own survival. To woo voters in their home constituencies, some junior and middle-ranking LDP lawmakers have started to take either anti-Aso positions or distance themselves from the prime minister. Some others are even preparing to create a new party that could possibly form an alliance with the Democratic Party of Japan if it seizes control of the government in the next election.

Aso and his close associates are desperate to revive the Cabinet’s approval ratings. The prime minister, who has explained that he is putting off the general election because he prioritizes policy steps over political interests, was accused by the opposition for the apparent contradiction of shelving the second extra budget to finance additional stimulus measures. He then presented a timetable for submitting the extra budget and the fiscal 2009 budget to the Diet that convenes in January, and on Dec. 12 he unveiled a new stimulus package worth ¥23 trillion that he described as “emergency measures to defend people’s livelihood.”

In a bid to emphasize the differences between the LDP and the DPJ, however, Aso clung to his position of making it clear in policy documents that the consumption tax will be raised in three years to rehabilitate the government’s finances, thereby intensifying friction with the ruling parties, particularly New Komeito, which is trying to avoid alienating voters ahead of a general election.

The DPJ had hoped to enter the general election against a Fukuda-led LDP. Right after Ichiro Ozawa was re-elected unchallenged to his third term as party chief, the DPJ appeared to lose steam when Fukuda suddenly resigned and paved the way for the election of Aso as the new leader to steer the LDP through the Lower House election. With the rapid decline of the Aso Cabinet’s popularity, the DPJ again seems to be on the offensive. However, many DPJ Lower House members are beginning to run short of campaign funds because they had started campaigning early in anticipation that Aso would dissolve the chamber right after his inauguration.

Barring major unforeseen factors, the general election will most likely be held after the fiscal 2009 budget and related bills have cleared the Diet. The specific timing will depend on the opposition, which controls the Upper House. It may be in April, if the opposition parties want an early election while it might be delayed until June if they want the Lower House poll to take place at the same time as the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, which is considered a crucial contest for New Komeito. Or, if Aso chooses to shift his emphasis from winning the general election to staying as prime minister as long as he can, the election could be held in September, when the four-year terms of Lower House members expire.

The longer the general election is put off, the worse the result could be for the LDP. Uncertainties over how long the Aso Cabinet can survive will create self-destructive dynamics within the ruling coalition. Budget debates in the upcoming Diet session will provide ample opportunities for the opposition to attack the government.

The LDP won the general election in 2005 in a landslide. That was because Prime Minister Koizumi succeeded in sweeping urban unaffiliated votes by portraying himself as somebody fighting the LDP old guard. Lawmakers who opposed Koizumi’s postal privatization were denied the party’s endorsement in the election and had to compete against official LDP candidates fielded in their constituencies. Today, these urban swing voters have returned to their traditional, pro-opposition stance. In the 2007 Upper House election, the LDP won only 37 seats against the 60 captured by the DPJ. In this election, not only the urban unaffiliated voters but some traditional LDP supporters in rural areas voted for the DPJ. The outcome of the 2009 general election will depend largely on how many of these rural votes will return to the LDP, but the party should expect little given the continuing unpopularity of Aso’s Cabinet.

Admittedly, it is almost impossible to accurately predict the outcome of the upcoming general election, which will naturally be influenced by long-term and short-term factors, in particular the prevailing situation at the time of the election. However, it may be worth speculating what would happen if the opposition does win.

Suppose the largest opposition DPJ single-handedly wins a majority in the Lower House. The DPJ could take power in its own right. But the party alone is slightly short of a majority in the Upper House, and therefore the most likely scenario is the formation of a coalition government with two minor opposition parties — the Social Democratic Party and People’s New Party (Kokumin Shinto), a small spinoff of the LDP. It remains to be seen whether such a coalition government could effectively run the country, and whether it could deal with the obstinate and headstrong bureaucracy. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that this could not happen and that such a new political regime, led by the DPJ, could substantially alter Japan’s political common sense, which has long been regarded by the people as self-evident under the perennial LDP’s rule.

For instance, Japanese people take it for granted that the size of the government budget equals the general-account budget, or ¥83 trillion initially earmarked for fiscal 2008. However, there are a horde of special-account budgets totaling ¥178 trillion, bringing the aggregate amount of the budget to ¥261 trillion and giving the people a new perspective of the nation’s budget management. Under LDP politics, it is almost mandatory that the government wins the prior approval of the ruling party and its coalition partners on any major policy matter. Such a dualistic management of government could be transformed into an integrated one by assigning key players in the ruling parties to key positions in administrative organs.

In retrospect, regime change did occur in 1993, for the first time in 38 years, with the birth of an anti-LDP coalition government headed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. But the new administration was a makeshift coalition of eight political parties and groups in which the opposition Japan Socialist Party was the largest force. In such circumstances, the Hosokawa Cabinet had to emphasize the continuity of key policies, without declaring and enforcing a major departure from LDP politics. Such a conciliatory stance not only resulted in his Cabinet being short-lived but also lessened the historic significance and potential of the Hosokawa government.

Compared to the fiasco of the 1993 regime change, the DPJ appears set to discontinue LDP politics. If this is the case, the presumed regime change in the wake of the upcoming general election has more potential to mark the beginning of Japan’s structural reform in the true sense of the word by breaking down the inertia of LDP politics, which was once the effective political mechanism that funneled the dividends of economic growth to the people.

What Japan desperately needs is the type of political dynamism in which a change of government becomes possible and commonplace. In other words, it is possible in Western democracies for any political party to become a governing or opposition party. Once it wins the public mandate to govern, it strives to accomplish what it prepared for and pledged to do during its opposition days. It may be so busy implementing what it pledged to accomplish while in opposition that it has no time to work out new policy measures. It is the main task of any political party when in opposition to work out alternative policy packages, examine its organization and prepare for the day when it is in government. In this sense, the time in opposition is an indispensable and fruitful period for any political party in a democratic system. It may be a blessing for the LDP, and for the long-term overhaul of Japan’s politics, for it to experience some time as an opposition party.

Some say political realignment is inevitable in the wake of the upcoming general election, irrespective of which party — LDP or DPJ — wins. Such sentiments are usually expressed by national legislators affiliated with the LDP who want to be part of the DPJ or DPJ-led government if the LDP loses the next general election and becomes the opposition. Under the present mix of single-seat and proportional representation constituencies in the Lower House, however, there is only a limited possibility of a full-scale political realignment involving the LDP and the DPJ, due to the presence of incumbent legislators of the rival party in the same constituencies or potential candidates seeking re-election in the same party.

Since the days of the civil movements for democratic rights in the Meiji Era, which ushered in the modern constitutional government system, the two-conservative-party system has been the tradition and political norm in this country. Today’s LDP is the legacy of a merger of the two major conservative parties in the Cold War days after the end of World War II with the aim of countering the rise of socialism. The Cold War is gone and the latest developments in the political world suggest that Japan is finally returning to its traditional political setup.

Norihiko Narita, who served as official chief secretary of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, is president of Surugadai University.