Japan's Aso already a lame duck
TOKYO - Just a little more than two months since he took office, Taro Aso is increasingly losing his way as Japan's prime minister. While the world's second-largest economy is suffering from a deep recession, his administration has delayed submitting an additional supplementary budget to the current Diet (parliament) session, upsetting voters. His numerous gaffes have also caused his popularity to plummet.
The government's failure to take appropriate, decisive and speedy action in coping with the ailing economy could bring about an unexpectedly high voter turnout in the next national election, with a good possibility of changing the ruling party - a major power shift from Japan's 50-plus years of de facto one-party rule. Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have even started to call for political realignment before the election, with signs of such vigorous moves already emerging.
"With the Aso cabinet's approval rating plunging, we are beginning to fail to suppress internal criticism against it," Chuichi Date, a LDP Upper House member who currently serves as the party's deputy secretary general, told Asia Times Online. "I see a 50-50 chance of a regrouping of political force in January ahead of a snap election."
Although two months ago the ruling LDP-New Komeito coalition chose Aso as the front man for a snap election, Aso has postponed it, viewing it as a fatal battle that could change the governing party from the LDP to the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
The delayed election tactic has now backfired. Failing to capitalize on the brief honeymoon support Aso received from the public in late September, he missed a good opportunity to use the privileges a prime minister enjoys. These include dissolving the House of Representatives (provided his party had won elections), appointing cabinet members and party officials, and compiling the national budget - something that United States president-elect Barack Obama keeps showing the world.
Aso said he had delayed polls to cope with the faltering economy in the midst of what he called the "once-in-a-century" financial crisis, stressing policies should come before politics. But he has also postponed submitting the second extra budget designed to finance an additional economic stimulus package worth 27 trillion yen (US$290 billion), including a 2 trillion yen cash benefit program for households. Aso and other LDP officials have said it will take time to deliberate fiscal 2009 taxation reform and to compile the national budget for the next fiscal year.
"The Aso administration is forced to delay forming a second supplementary budget because it accompanies many systemic revisions and the passage of related bills to furnish money to the public," said the LDP's Date. "Besides those technical reasons, the LDP is afraid that submitting an extra budget during the ongoing Diet session could cause a political deadlock, which would lead to a snap election early next year."
DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, meanwhile, last month requested that Aso submit a second supplementary budget to the current Diet session. Aso has stopped short of promising Ozawa he would do so, bringing about the DPJ's much tougher stance against the Aso administration.
"It was the government's promise when [Aso] said economic measures before the election," Ozawa told reporters after a meeting with Aso. "It's not appropriate to take an approach to make a fool of the public."
Aso's rapid decline in popularity
Top daily newspapers on Monday all reported dismal public support for the Aso cabinet, ranging from 21-22%, even lower than the 25% for the cabinet of Aso's predecessor, the unpopular Yasuo Fukuda, right before his abrupt resignation announcement on September 1. Support for Aso's cabinet fell to 22% in an Asahi newspaper poll, from 37% a month ago. Polls published in the Yomiuri and Mainichi newspapers showed similar sharp declines.
Even more notably, the disapproval rate for the Aso cabinet increased sharply to 64% from 41% in the Asahi survey. The non-support rating for his cabinet rose to 66.7% in the latest survey conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, double the 33.4% in an early November survey.
Aso's personal credibility has suffered from numerous gaffes. On November 19 he said he thought that many doctors "lack common sense" and have a "totally different" value system, offending doctors across the country. On the same day, he told a meeting, "I respect the kindergarten director who said that the people who should be disciplined are mothers rather than children."
The prime minister also said on November 20, "'Why should I pay for [the medical costs of] people who [become sick] because they just keep on drinking and eating and doing nothing," according to the minutes of a Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy meeting.
Aso was later forced to apologize for these remarks.
Aso's decline has boosted the opposition DPJ ahead of elections that are required to be held by September 2009. Thirty-five percent of respondents in the Asahi survey said they would prefer Ozawa as prime minister, compared with 30% who chose the incumbent. This is the first time Ozawa has pushed ahead of Aso in this category.
In a conversation broadcast on nationwide television on Monday night, Motoo Hayashi, the LDP's acting secretary general, said at a board meeting attended by Aso, "Today [I was] disappointed to see the support rate for the cabinet." Then, Tadamori Oshima, the party's Diet Affairs Committee chairman, hastily interrupted Hayashi's discourse. Aso just listened and remained silent.
This scene symbolically represents the LDP's concern over the Aso administration and more than a few people have been able to speak frankly and bluntly to Aso himself.
There is widespread speculation that the sharp fall in Aso's approval rating will touch off vigorous moves toward political realignment.
As Gerald Curtis, professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University, correctly predicted in an email interview in early September, one would represent the so-called Koizumi school, named after former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. This group may involve Hidenao Nakagawa, the LDP's former secretary general; Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister; Yoshimi Watanabe, a former minister of administrative reform and currently a vocal critic of Aso's weak political leadership; and Seiji Maehara, a former leader of the opposition DPJ.
Another group would involve the LDP's powerful politicians, such as Koichi Kato and Taku Yamazaki and leaders of opposition parties such as Naoto Kan and Shizuka Kamei. This group is believed to favor a combination of rather old-line conservative big-government types in the LDP and more socialist-leaning big-government types in the DPJ.
The LDP's Date pointed out that Ozawa and Kato have advanced consultations in recent days.
The LDP has only lost power for a total of 10 months since 1955. The party seems to be finally completing its historical missions in the post-Cold War era - missions supporting Japan's role as an anti-communist bastion of the US against Russia and favoring bureaucratic centralization with pork-barrel politics.
The popular Koizumi used to repeatedly vow to "destroy" the LDP if it refused to reform, boosting the party's strength. Looking back, history will show the Koizumi era was a rare exception as the party's prestige weakens.
Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.