By: Our Correspondent

With only two months
past since Taro Aso overwhelmingly won an election to lead the
Liberal Democratic Party, already many in Japan are experiencing
something akin to buyers’ remorse. The Aso cabinet’s
public approval rating, not all that high to begin with, has fallen
25 percentage points in just eight weeks to a low of around 22
percent.

The LDP bigwigs
assumed that Aso’s supposed popularity made him the best choice
to lead the party in a snap general election. Now that any election
has been delayed, probably until spring at the earliest, many must be
asking themselves privately, why did we pick this chump?

So far there are
only the usual rumblings of discontent among the party rank-and-file,
although former prime minister Yoshio Mori, one of Aso’s most
influential backers in the election held last September, was moved to
ask in a speech to a party meeting: “Why only a little more
than two months we need to defend the party president”?

Well, one reason is
that Aso hasn’t learned to curb his tongue. He has been taken
to task several times for slips of the lip, including his
descriptions of elderly pensioners as wanting to just eat and sleep.
He has since markedly kept his public comments short and scripted,
which only disappoints that segment of the voter who liked Aso
because he spoke his mind.

More to the point,
at a time when the public is crying for clarity and purpose, the Aso
cabinet’s response to the growing economic crisis has been
muddled and inconsistent. The government’s plan for a ¥2
trillion cash handout to stimulate the economy has been dogged with
unresolved questions. Should it go to everyone, or just to everyone
but the wealthy?

The cabinet has
decided to postpone the submission of a second supplementary budget
for fiscal 2008 until early next year. The extra budget is designed
to finance an additional economic stimulus package worth about US$278
billion. In the interim, Aso resorts to jawboning, imploring that
corporations regularize their temporary hires rather than sacking
them after the New Year.

But even members of
Aso’s own cabinet are expressing doubts about the wisdom of
cash handouts and other stimulus measures. Minister for the Economy
Yasano Kaoru, a prominent budget hawk who ran against Aso for the
party leadership, states flatly that the idea to hand out ¥2
trillion to households won’t do the job. It is simply time to
tighten belts, he says.

Belt-tightening is
not what the Aso government has in mind, though. This week the
cabinet made clear that the government will return to tried-and-true
pork-barrel spending to help juice the economy, the budget and the
national debt be damned. “The era of budget austerity is over,”
said Asahi Shimbun.

In other words, the
door now is firmly shut on former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s
efforts to “reform” the party by reducing the party’s
strong dependence on public works spending, or at the very least it
is now held in abeyance. The government will increase public spending
and issue new government bonds to finance another big splurge in
public works spending.
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The decision was
criticized by some as simply adding to the combined long-term debts
of both the central and local government, which now exceed 150
percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, the highest
such ratio in the developed world.

Also going by the
board is the plan put forth earlier this year by another former Prime
Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, to direct some of the proceeds from the
special gas tax to local governments as tax allocation grants which
they were free to spend on things besides roads. The proposal was a
compromise designed to end a bitter Diet clash with the opposition
over gasoline tax surcharges and wasteful spending on roads.

The Aso government
has said it may distribute ¥1 trillion from general funds to be
used by local governments as they see fit. This is seen as mainly a
ploy to cover up the fact that the LDP has caved to the construction
lobby.

The abandonment of
Koizumi style “reforms” has naturally disappointed the
former prime minister’s acolytes in the ranks of the LDP,
leading to some speculation that they might leave the party to form a
new one. They’re too small to weaken the LDP’s huge
majority, but such a bolt might bring the LDP below the two-thirds
majority needed to override opposition in the upper house.

Shrewdly recognizing
the fissures in the LDP, Opposition Leader Ichiro Ozawa, floated the
idea of forming a grand all-party “National Government”
coalition to manage the financial crisis until a general election is
held. Nobody expects this to transpire, but it could exacerbate
tensions in the ruling party.

When it seemed that
a general election was imminent, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP)
was inclined to be cooperative. Now that the election has been put
off, it has resumed its old stance of opposition for opposition sake,
using its control of the upper house to do this.

The DJP lawmakers in
that body are refusing to vote on two government bills, the law to
extend Japan’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and
another to bolster the financial system. For good measure it is
threatening Aso with a censure motion. After 60 days the bills are
considered defeated, allowing the LDP in the lower house to pass them
again them using its supermajority.

For the moment, the
LDP seems to be stuck with the decision it made in September to
elevate Aso to the party leadership. To change premiers once again,
for the fourth time since the last general election in 2005, might
look like it was becoming a bad habit.

Moreover, despite a
field of some 300 members of the lower house, the LDP’s bench
is looking rather weak. It is hard to believe that any of the five
members who ran against Aso in the party election would fare any
better than he is doing –or anyone else.