Nowhere to Go but Down

The candidates’ posters adorning the walls in my Tokyo neighborhood have been up so long that the colors are fading. But it won’t be long until they are replaced by fresh portraits. Already the smiling face of brand new Prime Minister Taro Aso is appearing along with the slogan: "Aso Accomplishes!"

Japan is moving inexorably toward a potentially historic general election. Pundits still refer to it as a "snap" poll as if it were coming as a surprise and as if the members of the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, were not already entering the fifth year of their five year term.

Both teams now have picked their champions for the coming joust. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) overwhelmingly chose former foreign secretary Taro Aso to replace Yasuo Fukuda in an interparty vote held on September 22. Meanwhile, Ichiro Ozawa was re-elected unopposed for another term as leader of the main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP).

The election might be called as early as November, after the Diet passes a special supplementary budget. The LDP’s coalition partner Komeito wants an early vote, and the DJP, of course has been clamoring for one ever since it won control of the upper House of Councilors in July, 2007.

The LDP might want to take advantage of the "honeymoon" afforded a new premier to hold an early election, except that sobering polling suggests there won’t be a honeymoon. Fewer than 50 per cent of voters approve of the new Aso government. That may be better than Fukuda at his lowest, but it is not encouraging for a brand new premier.

If Ozawa’s party gains enough seats to form a government it would be more than just an electoral victory; it would be revolutionary. Aside from a brief period in the early 1990s, the LDP has never been out of the government. Japan has never accomplished what Taiwan and South Korea have in a much shorter period of democratic rule, which is to oust the party long in power, and then to oust the challengers and put the other party back into office.

But what constitutes victory for Aso’s LDP is not so simple. The problem for the party is that it won so many seats – some 70 per cent of the 480-seat lower house – in former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 2005 snap election that it is bound to lose many of them in the next poll.

Just to give one example, Tokyo has 25 seats in the lower house. Of those, 23 are held by the LDP (having ousted ten Democrats in 2005), one by coalition partner Komeito, and only one is currently held by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. How does the LDP improve on that?

Aso’s new party secretary general, Hiroyuki Hosoda has already lowered expectations. "The minimum goal is that the ruling coalition wins a majority to keep control of the government," he said.

So before long pundits will come up with some arbitrary figure – call it "X" – for number of seats that the LDP can lose and still call the showing a "victory". If the party lost more than X number of seats, it would be a "defeat", and Aso might find his term as prime minister over almost before it had begun.

The Tokyo numbers point to a fundamental shift in Japanese politics. Many still mistakenly think of the LDP as a rural party, beholden to farmers and country interests, when it is actually becoming an urban party. But urban voters are fickle with only a shallow attachment to either party. The party hopes that Aso’s personal popularity will win votes among this floating electorate.

In recent years the DJP has made inroads into these traditional LDP rural strongholds. These were the voters who gave the DJP its astonishing victory in the 2007 upper house election. Ozawa will be cultivating the same ground in any general election.

The LDP leaders in the hinterland understand this and are running scared. That’s why the prefectural party members voted almost unanimously for Aso in the poll earlier this month for the LDP party presidency and prime minister, whereas his parliamentary colleagues scattered their votes among the four other candidates.

Aso spent much of the time he was out of office this year visiting rural parts of Japan, talking about the needs of the more depressed areas and the necessity of stimulating the tanking economy. He wants to postpone certain other actions, such as raising the sales tax, until the economy is back on a stronger footing.

The party hopes that he can also display some of Koizumi’s flair for political theater without hectoring party leaders about the need for structural reform. They need not worry; Aso is no Koizumi on economic issues. Structural reform is not part of his platform. (Koizumi is retiring from parliament and not running for re-election).

A former foreign minister, Aso is more interested in foreign policy issues than the domestic economy. He will likely try to suppress this inclination, since he knows that the Japanese electorate is overwhelmingly focused on the economy, pension funds and food scandals. The critical business community does not want to alienate China at this critical juncture either.

So the prevailing view is that the Diet will stay in session long enough to pass a US$107 billion economic stimulus package initially proposed by the Fukuda government made up mostly of loan guarantees to small businesses before adjourning for an election.

It is doubtful whether Aso will try to push through another extension of the Indian Ocean refueling mission, whose authorization is set to expire in January, since there probably is not enough time to override any opposition or delaying tactics from the opposition-controlled upper house. And after the election he won’t have the votes to do it.

The reality is that in the next election Aso has nowhere to go but down (the only question is how far). But for Ozawa, achieving a majority against the huge supermajority that the LDP now enjoys might be a bridge too far. The likely result: the LDP returned but with a sharply reduced majority.

That is a prescription for more gridlock. The upper house will remain in opposition hands since it operates under a fixed election schedule and cannot be dissolved by the premier. The next election for half of the body won’t take place until July, 2010. Meanwhile the LDP will have lost the two-thirds majority needed to override its objections.