Illustration: Phil Couzens

Waiting for the reformists

The decision to delay the general election until 30 August means that there are weeks left for the LDP's warring policy groups to battle for the soul of the party.

It turns out that the twenty-seven days that will elapse between the dissolution of the lower house on 21 July and the start of the campaign on 18 August will be the longest such period under the postwar constitution. The 2005 election's twenty-one days is the current record.

In the meantime, Asō Tarō and the LDP will be tested. The first, and perhaps easiest, test will be the concurrent lower house no-confidence and upper house censure motions submitted by the opposition parties this evening. The DPJ and the other opposition parties presumably hope that they will present potential LDP rebels with an opportunity to break with the party. However, it will probably take more than a no-confidence motion for the DPJ to draw away potential LDP defectors. By acting immediately after the Tokyo election, Asō clearly knocked the intra-party anti-Asō movement off balance, which of course wanted to delay so that they might have a chance to unseat the prime minister and elevate a new leader. The reformists may simply not be ready to act so decisively against the prime minister, especially since the no-confidence motion will go to a vote in the House of Representatives Tuesday afternoon, followed by a censure vote in the upper house.

But Asō and the LDP could still face an exodus of reformists from the party. Is Nakagawa Hidenao truly ready to leave? Will other Koizumi children follow Nagasaki Kotaro out of the party, reasoning that they stand a better chance of reelection running independently? Will they join with Watanabe Yoshimi and his incipient party? Is Watanabe about to receive an influx of LDP members? If they do leave, it will force the LDP to debate borrowing from Koizumi and nominating "assassin" candidates to run against the reformists. At the same time, DPJ candidates would presumably have a harder time against independent reformist candidates who had broken away from the LDP than the same candidates struggling to distance themselves from Asō without leaving the party.

It is entirely possible that the reformists will stay and fight on within the LDP, perhaps issuing a policy document tantamount to a manifesto while still running as LDP candidates. As unpopular as Asō is, there are advantages to pursuing this course of action instead of breaking with the LDP outright, not least because it maximizes their post-election options.

There is a certain symmetry to this state of affairs, given that four years ago the reformists had the LDP's old guard on the defensive to the point of driving some of their number out of the party. The difference is that it is unlikely that the LDP leadership will actively seek to drive the reformists from the party, no matter what they do to distance themselves and undermine Asō.

Indeed, if this election is to spell the end of the LDP, there will also be a certain symmetry with the beginning of the LDP, which began with a merger among warring camps incapable of agreeing on a postwar conservative agenda. And, appropriately, once again a Hatoyama is poised to gain the premiership.

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