With less than a month to the general election, Taro Aso and the LDP continue to face what looks like certain defeat. The DPJ continues to enjoy a sizable and solid lead in public opinion polls, the latest being an Asahi poll that showed the DPJ favored in the proportional representation race by a margin of 39 percent to 22 percent.
More significantly, as August began, a meeting of nine private-sector groups (the Twenty-First Century Rincho) — including industrial groups, think tanks, and unions — declared that the LDP-Komeito coalition government had largely failed to deliver on its promises from the 2005 general election. Criticism from Rengo, the private-sector union associated with the DPJ, is not surprising, but the Keizai Doyukai was scathing in its criticism, castigating the coalition for failing to reform how the government taxes and spends as well as the strained social security system. The LDP was lambasted for failing to exercise political leadership, for letting power flow back to bureaucrats and their zoku allies in the LDP. All in all, a failing grade for the government.
What's the LDP to do to pick up some momentum and possibly turn the tide in the two weeks before the election campaign officially begins?
Scare the public, of course.
Aso began his national tour over the weekend with a visit to Niigata, to — you guessed it — the site where Megumi Yokota is said to have been kidnapped from in 1977. Paired with the prime minister's rhetoric — "the DPJ is clearly an irresponsible party" — the message couldn't be any clearer. The LDP, the responsible party, will not only restore growth, but it will bring the abductees home, "defend that which should be defended," including tradition, history, the Imperial Family, the Japanese language, and the national flag. Will the DPJ, he askedat an event in Aichi, fly the flag given its alliance with Nikkyoso [the teachers' union]? Given the results of the aforementioned Asahi poll, which showed that respondents favor the DPJ over the LDP on fixing the government's finances and restoring growth by sizable margins but favor the LDP over the DPJ on foreign and defense policy by a 49 percent to 27 percent margin, perhaps the LDP can make up some ground stressing the danger of trusting the DPJ with power — except that of course the public cares about the other two areas (and welfare state issues, not included in this poll) far more than they do about foreign policy. How many voters will be voting on the basis of foreign policy, after all? (Incidentally, while Aso was visiting Niigata and talking solemnly about bringing the abductees home, the abductees' families were alarmed that the LDP had "buried" the abductee issue in the manifesto, as they insist that rescuing the abductees is the "greatest national issue.")
But the LDP will be happy to run with this line — and it will undoubtedly be happy for the support from friends in Washington echoing the party line on the "irresponsible" DPJ. For example, Armchair Asia points to remarks from Michael Green about the DPJ's having "no plan for transferring power," a statement that is an outright lie. One could argue about the quality of the party's transition plan but the plan's existence is not a matter of opinion. And, incidentally, its plans for transition are not secret. It has been making the plan's contents known in the months leading up to the election.
The LDP stands naked before the voters as a party that stands for nothing more (or less) than staying power. This is true of all political parties to a certain extent, but most parties do a better job covering their naked ambition with ideological or programmatic clothing. Accordingly, the coverage provided by the LDP's manifesto is thin indeed: LDP rule will endure on the basis of green policies to draw in urban voters and outright protectionism and subsidies for the traditional supporters among farmers and small- and medium-sized enterprises.
How long is it, however, before the DPJ responds to the relentless LDP attack on the DPJ's ability to wield power? This campaign is far from over, after all. DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama has begun taking a more aggressive line of attack, criticizing the LDP for its "failures" in campaign stops over the weekend. He characterized the LDP's manifesto as "utter nonsense" and ridiculed Aso's plans for an "anime palace" as wasteful. It's a start, but the DPJ needs to remind voters that the LDP — in its mismanagement of government over the past four years, not to mention the years prior — is the dangerous party, the party that has run up the national debt, postponed social security reform, tax reform, labor-market reform, and so forth. The message is simple: the only dangerous course of action is trusting the LDP with power for another term.
Other posts by Tobias Harris: