Japan's governing party faces political extinction

Posted in Japan | 20-Feb-09 | Author: Martin Fackler| Source: International Herald Tribune

Prime Minister Taro Aso, of Japan, attending a budget committee at the Lower House of the Diet in Tokyo on Thursday.

TOKYO: Mounting troubles threaten the brief administration of Japan's unpopular prime minister, Taro Aso. The bigger question is whether time could also be running out for his Liberal Democratic Party and its half-century monopoly on political power in Japan.

Aso's frequent verbal gaffes have offended just about everyone from doctors to kindergarten mothers. A prominent lawmaker has defected from his party, and a former prime minister publicly rebuked him. Even his scheme to boost economic growth by giving away at least $130 in cash per person has been panned by the public as a cynical vote-winning gesture.

If the party loses upcoming elections, it could mean a drastic redrawing of Japan's political lines, as Liberal Democratic lawmakers defect to create new parties or join the opposition, which has historically been weak and divided. It also raises the possibility of a radical rethinking of Japan's increasingly ineffectual and dysfunctional politics, which have failed to produce the big changes needed to lift a nation that has seemed to slip into slow stagnation.

Political analysts and lawmakers say a defeat could even spell the end of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has appeared outdated with no ideology to bind it together beyond a desire to hold onto power. In its place could emerge new, more modern types of political parties bound together by a shared agenda and principles.

"A defeat could dissolve the Liberal Democrats, create new parties, change the whole political landscape," said Tomoaki Iwai, a politics professor at Nihon University in Tokyo. "The party itself has grown obsolete."

For now, the winner would likely be the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which endorses similar policies to the Liberal Democrats and also lacks an ideological core.

The latest blow to the prime minister came Tuesday, when his finance minister resigned after appearing to be in a stupor during a news conference over the weekend at an economic summit in Rome. The minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, who admitted to a glass of wine over lunch, blamed his strange performance, widely replayed on YouTube, on too much cold medicine.

The embarrassing news conference, and Aso's tardiness in seeking Nakagawa's resignation, have shaken a five-month-old administration that is already one of the least popular in postwar Japanese history. This week, panicked members of Aso's own party began calling on him to step aside so the Liberal Democrats can install a new, more appealing leader before the upcoming general election for the lower house of Parliament.

"The prime minister no longer has the ability, trust or integrity to manage the current political crisis," Masazumi Gotoda, a Liberal Democratic lawmaker, told reporters on Wednesday while making a public appeal for Aso to resign.

Even before the minister's resignation, Aso's approval ratings had already dipped into the single digits. An opinion poll published Feb. 10 by a leading newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, showed the Democratic Party of Japan had an approval rating of 28.3 percent, surpassing the Liberal Democrats' 26.8 percent.

A loss in the lower-house election, which must be called by mid-September, would remove the Liberal Democrats from Japan's helm for only the second time since the party's founding in 1955. The party lost power for 11 months in 1993.

But many lawmakers and political analysts say pushing aside Aso could also backfire for the party. Aso would become the third prime minister in less than three years to step down amid dismal approval ratings. That could further damage public confidence in the Liberal Democrats, who are already reeling from recent scandals, including the loss of millions of pension records, which outraged this rapidly aging nation.

"The party is in a dilemma because it could lose either way," said Atsuo Ito, an independent political analyst.

The depth of its predicament has many lawmakers and political analysts wondering if the party is not finally on its last legs.

The Liberal Democratic Party has been one of the longest-ruling political parties in the democratic world, founded to keep Japan firmly in the American camp against the Soviet Union, while focusing on export-led growth and building up the country with infrastructure projects.

But in recent years, the party has increasingly looked like an exhausted relic from the cold war, say political analysts and lawmakers. The party appears stuck in its old ways, promising tens of billions in new public works to combat the current financial downturn, despite sinking Japan deeply into debt building roads to nowhere during its stagnant 1990s.

Recently announced figures for the fourth quarter showed that Japan's economy is deteriorating at its worst pace since the oil crisis of the 1970s.

"The Liberal Democratic Party was not made for exerting strong leadership," said Yoshimi Watanabe, a former minister of administrative reform whose high-profile departure from the party last month kicked up a stir. "But political leadership is exactly what Japan needs now."

Aso's backers point out that this is not the first time that people have predicted the Liberal Democrats' demise, saying that both Aso and the party can still bounce back. They say voters will warm to the cash handouts and other planned stimulus measures like a lowering of highway tolls. They are also counting on Japan's cautious electorate to shy away from actually voting for an untried opposition, though they admit that the Liberal Democrats must also find a new message to woo back voters.

"The Liberal Democrats are a very flexible party, so it will adapt," said Yoshihide Suga, a lawmaker who is deputy chief of the party's election committee.

The last time someone tried to change the Liberal Democrats was a half decade ago, when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed to save the party by destroying it. He broke the grip of the party's powerful internal factions and weakened its embrace of rural voters with steep cuts in public works and the privatization of Japan's huge postal system, a source of jobs. But analysts say Koizumi ended up crippling the party by failing to create an alternative political base.

Since Koizumi's departure in 2006, the party has appeared to drift, sliding back toward its old factional politics and reliance on the bureaucracy. Aso has only added to this sense of lost direction by seeming to flip-flop and contradict himself on crucial issues.

Earlier this month Aso told a parliamentary committee that he had opposed Koizumi's postal privatization plan, despite boasting a few months earlier that he had been the minister in charge of it. Koizumi, who remains a powerful presence here, dismissed Aso's remarks as "laughable."

Aso has also turned off voters by seeming to be out of touch. The wealthy scion of a concrete conglomerate, Aso talks of drinking at posh hotel bars at a time when his constituents face growing layoffs and economic distress. He has also been mocked for his chronic misreading of characters in the written Japanese language.

"There's an unmistakable mood here that it is time to give the Democratic Party a chance," said Iwai of Nihon University. "But the Democrats have no experience running a country, so expectations aren't high there, either."