To Dump or not to Dump

If the Japanese could choose for their next prime minister anyone in the world, they would undoubtedly pick US President Barack Obama or possibly Britain's young and charismatic Conservative Party leader David Cameron, anyone but the goofballs and retreads that are currently on offer.

It is getting pretty late in the game to change leaders, but the dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), among the public and party rank and file is palpable.

A general election must be held by September, though some say it might be extended even into October so long as it takes place within 30 days of the expiration of the Diet's (parliament) five-year term on September 11. The betting is later rather than sooner.

For months the press has speculated on when Aso would call for the election – after the first stimulus bill? After the second? After the third? In fact, the prime minister has benefitted from prevarication, hoping that events would play into his hands. Events have.

On March 3 Ozawa's private secretary, Takanori Okubo, was arrested for allegedly violating the campaign contributions law by accepting an illegal contribution from the Nishimatsu Construction Co. He was indicted in late March. Suddenly, the DJP's prospects of actually winning the general election, despite the LDP's commanding majority, looked a lot dimmer.

So far Ozawa has refused to step down and turn the party leadership over to somebody else, complaining that he was the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated from the Tokyo prosecutor's office. The DJP leadership has gone along with his decision, though without obvious enthusiasm.

One of these leaders, Seiji Maehara, a former DJP party leader and now a vice president, said of Ozawa's decision: "When a leader makes a decision, it should be respected. Ozawa has said his overriding goal is to ensure a change on power. I want to believe him." It was not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Maehara said he wished to conduct a thorough internal poll, especially in key electoral districts about the party's electoral prospects with Ozawa staying on as leader and potential prime minister. Independent polls unambiguously run against Ozawa staying in power by factors of 60 to 70 percent.

Consequently, the Aso cabinet's public approval ratings have been crawling back from their deep nadir around the first of the year. A poll by Kyodo News Service showed that Aso's approval ratings stood at about 29.6 percent, hardly a ringing endorsement, but up 13 percentage points from before the Ozawa scandal broke.

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The LDP also got a morale boost when their candidate won the governor's race in Chiba prefecture, thought to be a sure thing for the DJP. Then it won in Akita prefecture too. The Democrats got some relief last weekend by winning the mayoral election in Nagoya, Japan's third city. But even here Takashi Kawamura triumphed mainly through strenuous canvassing by bicycle. He did not invite any of the DJP bigwigs to campaign for him.

So far in recent months, Aso and other party leaders have managed to avoid major gaffes, though Japanese were not very surprised when the premier stumbled in his formal congratulations to the Emperor and Empress on their 50th wedding anniversary in April. He's known to have trouble reading written Chinese characters.

On the other hand, there have been no further arrests or scandals in the DJP likely to spur Ozawa to quit. Ozawa was never directly implicated or brought in for questioning by prosecutors. Fears that the scandal might explode to include bribery charges in connection with the construction company kickbacks have not materialized.

The furor in Japan over North Korea's rocket launch in April was a godsend to both leaders. For Ozawa it pushed the campaign contribution allegations off of the front pages. For Aso it was a chance to display crisis management skills, moving anti-missile batteries and naval vessels around (although the government was embarrassed by several premature warnings of the launch).

To help restore its good image and put some daylight between it and the governing party, the DJP unveiled a plan to disallow Diet members from passing their parliamentary seats to their offspring as a kind of inheritance, a common practice in Japan.

The Democratic proposal would change party rules to prohibit relatives from running in the same electoral district immediately following the death, retirement or defeat of a sitting member. The proposals would also change election laws to make it difficult for a son or daughter to "inherit" his parent's support group.

About one third of the LDP members of the Diet occupy seats previously held by a father or grandfather. Aso and the previous two prime ministers are scions of former prime ministers. The Aso cabinet also boasts a Nakasone and an Obuchi, both sons or daughters of former PMs.

However, ending "inherited" Diet seats seems to be one of those questions, such as moving the capital out of Tokyo, or capping the salaries of Wall street executives, that gets debated from time to time but is never acted upon. It does make a good talking point for those seeking retire Ozawa (who inherited his Diet seat).

While there is still an undercurrent of grumbling about Aso in the governing party, it seems unlikely that the party will dump him. Among other things, nobody is confident that any among the 300 or so lower house members would make much of a difference with the voters if they did succeed him

It is much more likely that Ozawa will eventually see the light and retire. More than two months after his aide's arrest, the public's disapproval of his staying as leader has not abated, and his personal approval ratings are lower even than those of the prime minister.

If he does retire, it is more than likely that the Democrats will turn to Katsuya Okada, one of the DJP vice presidents and who heads the party body looking into reforms – such as those connected with campaign contributions and "inherited seats."

Meanwhile, Aso is busy keeping a high global profile. After flying to London for the Group of 20 meeting, he flew to China for a meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao, then on to Europe. In mid-May he welcomes Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and in July he attends the G-8 meeting. Ozawa has been keeping a low profile.