Circling the drain

The dissolution of the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Tarō Asō tells us, is not far off.

It cannot come soon enough. Each day brings more news of Asō's loosening grasp on his own party. Yomiuri reports that from Monday, the effort to replace the prime minister will take on a new urgency. The movement to move up the LDP presidential election is growing apace, becoming the latest cause of the LDP's reformists, who seem to think that one final change of leadership will be able to make up for three years of backsliding on reform. In addition to Taku Yamamoto, the lower house member circulating a petition on the election, Tsutomu Takebe, onetime Koizumi lieutenant, is also calling for an early party election, suggesting that Yuriko Koike or Yoichi Masuzoe would make fine choices for a new party leader and prime minister. Hidenao Nakagawa has suggested that if Asō does the "honorable" thing and resigns, LDP rule can continue. Yasufumi Tanahashi, who as a forty-one-year-old third-term Diet member became a cabinet minister holding special portfolios for science and technology and food safety under Koizumi, has openly called for the prime minister's resignation.

It is difficult to see what this campaign against Asō will accomplish other than accelerating the LDP's decline and perhaps forcing Asō into accelerating the lower house dissolution and a general election. The prime minister, after all, still has a nuclear option in the form of the right of dissolution, and to use it would deal a mortal blow to efforts to unseat him. If it would be farcical to replace Asō now, on the eve of a dissolution, it would be even more insulting to the intelligence of the Japanese public to replace Asō once the clock started ticking from the dissolution to a general election. To change leaders now would be an insult, sending a simple message to the public: pay no attention to the mishaps of the three LDP leaders who followed Koizumi and look to the bright future under (insert name of flashy new leader here).

At this point it would be no less insulting for Asō to reshuffle the LDP leadership to change the faces who will be seen on the campaign trail along with the prime minister. But along with his power over the timing of the general election the power to pick his cabinet and party leaders is just about all that Asō has left, and so it seems possible that he will use this last remaining tool to shake up the LDP. Ichita Yamamoto alludes to rumors that the PM might name Masuzoe chief cabinet secretary — in other words, giving Masuzoe responsibility for the election campaign, which would ensure that one of the few remaining popular LDP members would go before the public across the country.

Nevertheless, it is getting difficult to think of new metaphors and similes to illustrate just how desperate the LDP's situation is as June comes to a close. It is difficult to see a pathway to victory for the LDP barring some enormous scandal that implicates much of the DPJ — and even then, the election would presumably be closely contested. For all their good intentions, the reformists appear to have ensured that the LDP will be stuck with Asō, who now, thanks to their campaign to remove him, looks largely powerless as prime minister and party leader.

But not wholly powerless, as it looks like he will exercise his ultimate power. Asō has met with LDP and Komeitō leaders in recent days, and Sankei suggests that an early August election is most likely. According to Tadamori Oshima, the LDP's kokutai chairman, Asō has a final choice to make: whether to dissolve the Diet before he goes to Italy for the G8 summit on July 8 (and before the Tokyo assembly election on July 12) or whether to wait until after the Tokyo election. The choice will make little difference for the outcome – although Asō may enjoy Italy more if he waits until after his return to dissolve the Diet and call an election.

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