Japan’s LDP Heading for Historic Defeat

Would you call for a general election in the middle of what former Fed Chairman Greenspan called a "once-in-a-century credit tsunami" if you had a choice? Wouldn’t you want to postpone the punishment if your internal polling showed you teetering on the brink of an historic defeat? Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso would too.

Unlike John McCain in the US this week, who went down to decisive defeat, Aso does have some flexibility in setting an election date, so it was hardly surprising when last week he quashed speculation that he would call for an election late this month. His decision came only days after the Tokyo Stock Exchange opened with the lowest index level since before the collapse of the 1980s Bubble Economy, or when the yen reached a 15-year high of 93 to the dollar. Both have moderated somewhat, but the economic outlook remains dire.

That seems to have put paid to the once-bruited scenario whereby the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) brings in a new leader, uses the resulting bounce in party popularity to call a snap general election, limiting inevitable losses and returning to power with at least a governing majority.

Aso himself encouraged this speculation soon after he succeeded former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda last September in comments and in writings for a political journal. “I think my first mission is to seek he people’s verdict as a springboard to rebuild strong politics,” he said.

He struck a fighting pose at the beginning of the current special session of the Diet by peppering his rival Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), with policy questions. But the plan quickly faded when it became apparent that Aso’s selection was not providing the bounce the leadership had anticipated. He came into office with one of the lowest initial approval ratings of any freshman premier.

So his new mantra is “policies come before politics.” No election will be called this year. Aso might even string things out until next autumn, when he must call an election because the terms of the Diet members come to an end. He is banking on the economic climate may be more favorable to the incumbent party next year.

The main medicine he hopes use to alleviate a sickening economy is a second stimulus package. The first was aimed at alleviating the impact of surging crude oil prices, a surge that has receded only to be replaced by the worldwide credit crisis. A second and much larger package is on the table, which would, among other things had out $600 cash rebates to every Japanese household.

But by delaying the vote, Aso puts himself in the same position as his predecessor, trying to govern Japan with a Diet divided between the government and the opposition. Whether he navigates these obstacles and waters any better than Fukuda managed to do remains to be seen.

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When a general election, the holy grail for the opposition DJP, seemed imminent, the opposition party was inclined to be more cooperative. The two sides had even had worked out a deal for a quick reauthorization of the anti-terrorism law that permits Japanese naval vessels to resupply coalition war ships in the Indian Ocean.

Now consideration of the reauthorization bill has been delayed and has become wrapped up with a new scandal involving the chief of the Japanese air force, Gen. Toshio Tamogami, who was dismissed after he won an essay contest where he defended Japanese aggression in World War II. The opposition may haul him before the upper house for questioning.

But the opposition must walk a fine line over the stimulus package, since outright opposition to a measure deemed necessary to prevent Japan from falling into a deeper recession would obviously be unpopular. But it has made clear it has its own ideas on how the final legislation will be shaped.

Asked what the LDP would consider a “victory” when the general election is finally held, LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda told foreign journalists that his goal is holding losses to roughly 60 seats. That would leave the LDP with a bare majority of four or five seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives.

(Currently, the LDP-Komeito coalition holds about 70 percent of the lower house seats – 304 for the LDP; 31 for Komeito; with 113 for the DJP and 31 for minor parties and independents.)

An internal poll by the LDP that was leaked to the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper suggested the LDP was headed for a real bloodbath, with the LDP-Komeito bloc losing as many as 130 seats if an election were held now. That would hand an absolute majority to the opposition for the first time in history.

Wild electoral swings like this were virtually unheard of in Japan’s politics. Such a defeat would be akin to the British Conservative Party’s debacle in 1997, except that the British public is used to changes in government between parties. For Japanese electing the DJP would be a leap in the dark.

It used to be that Japanese voters “punished” the LDP in elections with minuscule losses of 10 or a dozen seats. Occasionally, the LDP strength even fell below a majority, requiring it to find a coalition partner. But aside from a few months in the early 1990s, the LDP has never been out of power.

But Japanese politics are becoming much more volatile, a reflection of electoral reforms of the early 1990s and declining party identification and loyalty especially among urban voters. In 2005 former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called a snap election and led his party to a gain of more than 80 seats. Two years later, the opposition party returned the favor picking up dozens of seats to gain effective control over the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. With the prospect of defeat staring them in the face, little wonder that the LDP leadership wants to put off the inevitable as long as possible.