These are the hollow men

"Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion" — T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

The belabored departure of Kunio Hatoyama — captured well with a quote from a more contemporary poet at Shisaku — and now the third straight defeat of an LDP candidate in a prominent mayoral election suggest that what little remained of the LDP's 2005 mandate is in tatters. Toshihito Kumagai, the thirty-one-year-old DPJ-backed candidate, won the Chiba City mayoral election Sunday, making him Japan's youngest mayor. Takeo Kawamura, the chief cabinet secretary, dismissed the election as having no influence on national politics, which may be true in a technical sense, but the DPJ's third straight mayoral campaign victory reinforces the image that the DPJ has recovered from the Ozawa scandal and that the LDP is in disarray and hemorrhaging electoral support.

Public opinion polls, after briefly recording an uptick in the LDP's fortunes, once again show that the public has grown weary of the Asō government and the LDP-Komeitō coalition. In a Mainichi poll conducted over the weekend, the cabinet's approval rating fell five points to 19 percent. When asked which party they want to win in this year's general election, respondents overwhelmingly favored the DPJ, 53 percent to 27 percent. And Yukio Hatoyama, while trailing "none of the above," which received 46 percent support, is the favored candidate for prime minister for 32 percent of respondents compared to Asō's 15 percent: the prime minister's support fell six points since last month.

The LDP is once again in full-blown panic mode — hence the Eliot quote above. As the LDP scrambles to respond to its latest setbacks while simultaneously preparing for a general election, "paralysed force" strikes me as a particularly apt description of the Asō LDP. Anti-Asō murmurings from within the LDP are growing louder, prompted by his mishandling of the Japan Post debate and Hatoyama's dismissal. (In the Mainichi poll, only 22 percent of respondents approved the government's dismissal of Hatoyama.) But in all the scrambling and the maneuvering against Asō, it is unclear how the LDP can present itself to the public in the months so to reverse the shift towards the DPJ. The LDP is struggling once again for the same reasons it has struggled throughout the four years since the last general election. As MTC argued in the post linked to above, the LDP has spent four years retreating from the Koizumi platform that helped the ruling coalition secure a record supermajority, with the result that the party's image is more muddled than usual. The fight over the reappointment of Yoshifumi Nishikawa as head of Japan Post is the natural consequence of the creation of a Koizumian reformist remnant within the LDP that has been marginalized within the party but retains considerable clout through its association with Koizumi, their ties with the media, and (for now) their numbers among the LDP's backbenchers. In forcing the prime minister to dismiss Hatoyama, the reformists scored a rare victory, but on the whole they have been in retreat for at least three years.

But it is not entirely clear what the reformists and the "old guard" are fighting over. Of course on paper they have two different visions for how the LDP should govern — although the old guard seems to put less on paper than the reformists, many of them being prolific bloggers and authors, wannabe public intellectuals of one sort or another. Hidenao Nakagawa, much like Koizumi, has no shortage of slogans about how to change Japan, but it is sometimes difficult to see how his slogans ("from government to the people," etc.) would translate into policies. For all the vitriol directed at the old LDP by Koizumi, Nakagawa, and others, the differences are less on policy and more on political style and tactics, the timing of reform, and the government's priorities. Few, after all, oppose "reform" outrightly. Indeed, there is no shortage of ideas in all issue areas and across the political spectrum. The problem is that plans and schemes are rarely matched by realistic approaches to implementation. To take one example, postal privatization obviously didn't end with the passage of legislation; it is a complicated process that has required more than sloganeering. Would the radical decentralization plans proposed by the leaders of both the LDP and the DPJ be any less tortuous in their implementation?

Structural reform may be necessary, but its advocates would do well to focus more on building stable, enduring coalition that can manage both the passage and the implementation of reforms than on devising clever slogans to rally support for their ideas while antagonizing other political actors. As Koizumi found, unrelenting war against the "opposition forces" was easier said than done: even he had to compromise with rivals within the LDP, and, more significantly, the finance ministry.

The result is that the LDP may be more amorphous than ever, saddled with Koizumi's legacy, torn between partisans of the Koizumi way and conservatives who want the minimal amount of change necessary to stay in power, and powerless to resolve these internal conflicts and consequently to make progress tackling the problems facing Japan. Ichita Yamamoto, one of the LDP's most outspoken reformists, has voiced his support for Asō, but it is half-hearted support, in that he supports Asō's leading the LDP into the general election because he thinks it would hurt the LDP to change leaders yet again. And it is telling that when he lists the government's accomplishments, he does not even attempt to spin Asō as a reformist, citing instead the economic stimulus packages and his foreign policy initiatives.

In other words, it is remarkable how little the LDP has to offer voters this year. Despite having the ultimate trump card in the form of the lower house supermajority, which ensured that it could overrule the DPJ-controlled upper house at will, the LDP and Komeitō have done remarkably little with their authority over the past three years. Work is proceeding on the party's manifesto, which promises to focus on the "livelihood of the people." ( Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) But by following the DPJ in promising to listen to the economic insecurities of the public, doesn't the LDP raise the question of what it has been doing to ease economic insecurity since the 2005 election and before? And by questioning the DPJ's ability to govern, won't the LDP invite questions about its own ability to govern? The narrative of this year's election campaign appears to favor the DPJ, as the public may once again be asking what the LDP has done with its mandate, instead of asking whether the DPJ will be able to deliver on its promises if given a mandate.

In short, LDP rule appears set to end in cacaphonous turmoil, as the party's warring schools squabble over whether the party is for "reform," "public well-being," or, like the DPJ, some combination of the two. And it seems that delaying the general election will only ensure that the combatants have more time to battle for the soul of the party, ensuring electoral defeat.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: