By: Our Correspondent

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.