The LDP's window of opportunity

The Aso government and the LDP, confident due to polling numbers trending in their favor, are publicly mulling the timing of the next general election, raising the possibility that the government will not wait until the end of the current Diet term in September before calling an election.

Sankei reports that members of Aso Taro's cabinet are celebrating the government's new strength, insisting that the government has emerged stronger from its flirtation with single-digit public approval. Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo suggested that the bump in public support is a reflection of public understanding that the government is working diligently to overcome the economic crisis. Hatoyama Kunio, the minister of internal affairs and communications, argued that the government's fortunes are looking up because "the prime minister's character is of a type whose true value takes time to be displayed and understood." Hatoyama foresees the government's public approval rising above 50%. (Does anyone want to take that bet?) Suga Yoshihide, the vice chairman of the LDP's election strategy committee, said that the public is "losing its allergy" to the LDP on the basis of the party's response to the economic crisis and the North Korean missile launch.

However, as Sankei notes at the end of its article, the members of the Aso cabinet have conspicuously neglected to mention that Ozawa Ichiro's struggles might have something to do with the change in the government's fortunes.

For his part, the prime minister has refused to celebrate prematurely — for good reason. Despite Hatoyama's inexplicable optimism, the Aso government and the LDP still have a perilous road ahead before they can be confident that an election is theirs to win.

First, Komeito continues to oppose an election before the July 12 elections for the Tokyo assembly. The party's leadership has publicly rejected a mid-June election, at the close of the ordinary Diet session, as too close to the Tokyo election, upon which the LDP's junior partner has long attached considerable weight when it comes to election timing. Komeito head Ota Akihiro questioned whether the governing coalition should be so confident about the general election, arguing that, contrary to the judgment of Suga and others, it may be a mistake to generalize from the Chiba and Akita elections to determine public openness to voting for the LDP in a general election.

Komeito could be bargaining with the LDP, but for what? The government has already announced its latest stimulus package, meaning Komeito has probably already received the bulk of the benefits it will be able to squeeze out of the LDP in this round of economic stimulus. Can Komeito stop the prime minister from calling an early election? Komeito has stated its preference for an election sometime after July 12, but what is it offering or not offering the LDP in the debate over election timing? Conceivably the LDP will be solicitous of Komeito's opinions — Aso certainly has been up to this point — due to Komeito's holding the balance of the government's supermajority in the lower house, but what leverage does Komeito have when it comes to election timing? The timing of a general election might be one issue over which Komeito has little control.

More significant than Komeito opposition to an early election is the state of the economy. As I've argued previously, Aso is trapped between his commitment to put fixing the economy above everything else and the pressure from within LDP and the government to exploit what looks to be a window of opportunity during which the political situation favors the LDP. Can the LDP win on the basis of its "exhausting all power" to stimulate the economy, even if the government's efforts have had precious little impact on the health of the Japanese economy? Do Aso's ministers truly believe that the public is responding to the government's diligent efforts?

The DPJ, as expected, has stressed the need for "sufficient debate" on the 15 trillion yen stimulus plan, prompting Yamaguchi Shunichi, one of Aso's cabinet aides, to note that if the DPJ prolongs the debate — which he characterized as extending the debate in the upper house to longer than a couple weeks — it is possible that the prime minister will retaliate by calling an election. (Who is the prime minister or his aide to decide what makes for the appropriate amount of debate, especially the size of the stimulus package, the amount of debt entailed, and the fact that LDP no longer controls the upper house?) I suspect that the DPJ will call the prime minister's bluff; Ozawa, it seems, will do so gladly, as he said Tuesday that he still thinks that an election should be held as soon as possible.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, the DPJ. Ozawa's position is purportedly in jeopardy once again following Sunday's defeat in the Akita gubernatorial election, but as before, it is hard to see precisely how dissatisfied the party rank-and-file is with the beleaguered leader. There have been few hints of dissatisfaction from the party prefectural chapters or defections from the party leadership's decision to back Ozawa, aside from the usual suspects. In the wake of Sunday's defeat Hatoyama Yukio has called for Ozawa to make his case directly to voters in town hall meetings, something that I am surprised Ozawa has not been doing every day since the scandal broke. Ozawa might be clean and might have good reason for criticizing the Tokyo public prosecutor's office, but if he does not communicate directly to the public, without the filter of the media, polls will continue to show majorities in favor of his resigning. What remains unclear is whether those same majorities will be disinclied to support the DPJ in a general election if Ozawa stays on — despite Sunday's defeat, it still seems up to Ozawa whether he stays or goes, depending on a few factors beyond his control, and for now he shows no sign of going anywhere.

It seems clear that it is Ozawa who opened the window of opportunity that now tantalizes the LDP. The question for Ozawa is whether he can slam the window shut in the prime minister's face, without having to step down in the process.

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