The Tokyo election truce

The campaign for the 12 July Tokyo assembly election officially began Friday, marking the beginning of what could be the Asō government's last stand.

The prime minister and his supporters are, of course, doing everything they can to dismiss the notion that Tarō Asō's fate somehow rests upon the party's performance in the Tokyo election, even while they lower the threshold for victory in the election to a simple majority for the LDP and Komeitō combined. Asō's refrain remains that the local is local, and the national is national, and never the twain shall meet — but given Asō's fragile position, the slightest blow can be what makes the difference in whether he survives to the LDP in a general election. The Tokyo party continues to insist that it is in control of the situation, that the national party's concerns are overblown. The LDP's majority in Tokyo, the local party maintains, rests on more than the position of the national leadership.

The DPJ has explicitly argued the opposite, making its slogan in the campaign "Change Tokyo, Change Japan."

Given the role played by the national party leaders and the national media in this campaign, it will clearly have ramifications beyond who controls the Tokyo assembly. This election is a crucial test of whether the Asō LDP has the slightest possibility of retaining the urban seats the LDP won in significant numbers in 2005, seats occupied largely by the reformist LDP members openly challenging the Asō government. If the LDP can win in Tokyo under Asō, it will go a long way to lifting the pressure on his leadership.

To that end, his reformist opponents have declared a truce in the war to overthrow the prime minister before he can call a general election. Representative Taku Yamamoto, collecting signatures within the LDP for a petition demanding that the party move its presidential election to before the general election, has announced that he will exercise self-restraint in the week leading up to the Tokyo election. Sankei reports that there is indeed a truce in the struggle, but suggests that it is nothing more than a truce — there is no hint that a lasting peace is in the works. The party's elders would of course love nothing more than a peace treaty before a general election, and are now working to delay a dissolution not only until after the Tokyo election and Asō's trip to Italy, but until after the Emperor and Empress return from a two-week trip to Hawaii and Canada that ends on 17 July. By then the party expects that remaining legislation will have passed the Diet. What is not clear to me, however, is why senior LDP leaders think that delaying the dissolution and the general election will be a cause for peace within the party. Presumably the more time the reformists have before an election, the more time they have to demand Asō's resignation and to make demands about the contents of the party's manifesto. In the best LDP fashion, the party has decided to postpone official discussion of the manifesto, pushing back the creation of a manifesto project team. The longer the delay, the more time the reformists will have to question the leadership. Hidenao Nakagawa has suggested the possibility of drafting a separate document, even as he said that he wouldn't leave the LDP (yet) — reinforcing the idea that the LDP is divided in all but name. Drafting an independent manifesto would of course help the reformists distance themselves from the prime minister, but even and especially if it helped more Koizumi children get reelected, it would only be setting the stage for a continuation of the intra-party fight after the general election.

The choice for Asō, in other words, is bleak. Win on the 12th and the pressure to delay the general election and accelerate the party election may recede, but the fight over the manifesto will intensify. Lose on the 12th and the pressure on Asō to resign or, failing that, on the party leadership to accelerate the LDP presidential election will grow inexorably. And to take Asō's own words, the local is the local. An LDP victory on 12 July will say little about the party's prospects in a general election.

There may be a truce in the LDP, but the worst fighting is yet to come.

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