TOKYO — If popularity by association held any sway among voters, then Taro Aso would surely be relishing the prospect of going to the polls later this year.
On Feb. 24 the Japanese prime minister was, after all, the first foreign leader to cross the threshold of the Barack Obama White House, exactly a week after Hillary Clinton pointedly called on Tokyo first in her international debut as U.S. secretary of state.
For Aso, Obama offered soothing words about the importance of the bilateral alliance and Japan’s pivotal place in Asia-Pacific security arrangements, and how the world’s two biggest economies would emerge from the financial quagmire together, or not at all.
Yet not even the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the new U.S. president will be able to save Aso: even as leader of the Liberal Democratic party (LDP), one of the most effective electoral machines of modern times, the one-time China baiter with an addiction to manga comic books is living on borrowed time.
Last autumn when he became Japan’s fourth prime minister in three years, he was touted as the only man capable of propelling the LDP to victory in an election that must be called by the end of this September.
Six months later, as his country begins to feel the full force of the economic chill blowing in from the other side of the Pacific, evaluations of Aso’s performance range from the thoughtfully critical to the downright censorious.
Consider the verdict of Yoshimi Watanabe, himself an LDP politician until he quit the party in disgust at Aso last month. "The longer an election is postponed, the fewer seats the LDP will win," he said. "The LDP is like the Titanic approaching a huge iceberg that is the election.”
The country’s voters, the same people who have delivered the LDP into office for all but 10 months of the past 55 years, appear to agree.
Recent opinion polls put Aso’s personal approval rating at 10-14 percent, levels not seen since the nadir of Yoshiro Mori’s despised premiership in early 2001. According to the Asahi newspaper, 60 percent of voters want an immediate election.
Even the centerpiece of Aso’s economic stimulus package — a one-time handout of 120 dollars to every resident — has been rubbished by two-thirds of voters as a cynical pre-election ploy.
Amid the myriad post-election scenarios regularly chewed over in the Japanese press, one outcome is almost certain: that the LDP will lose its majority in the lower house and force the first major realignment in the country’s politics since its last period in opposition in 1993.
A coup de grace from within the party appears unlikely, now that the man most qualified to take over, the economics and finance minister Kaoru Yosano, has ruled himself out. Other potential leaders have so far failed to declare an interest in sipping from the poisoned chalice that is the presidency of the modern-day LDP.
Aso, meanwhile, insists on soldiering on against the odds. He has always indicated he would not dissolve parliament until it had passed a record $906 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.
That has now been achieved after weeks of poltical wrangling, but analysts expect Aso to hold on for as long as possible in the hope that the economy will pick up, and popular faith in the LDP as the natural party of government will make a miraculous return.
Yet history is littered with the corpses of political leaders whose downfall began on the day the first cracks appeared in the support of their party colleagues. And Aso’s are growing impatient.
Many want an election now rather than wait until Aso has pushed through all of his stimulus packages and been given the chance to shine during a forthcoming visit to China, and then to Britain for the G20 in April and Italy for the G8 in July.
But as his tête-à-tête with Obama proved, self-conscious displays of statesmanship are unlikely to save Aso now.
“The visit to Washington was an event staged for domestic political purposes,” says Go Ito, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo. “But Aso’s expectations of the visit were out of step with those of the public, who are far more interested in the economy.”
No matter how long he waits, Ito believes Aso is merely delaying the inevitable, with the DPJ better placed to seize power, either alone or as part of a coalition, since its formation in 1998.
Sachiko Shimizu, a retired restaurateur, is typical of the growing number of malcontents among the erstwhile LDP faithful.
“I have voted for the LDP all my life,” says the 72-year-old. “It might turn out that the DPJ makes a mess of things and we all go back to the party we know best. But the opposition at least deserves a chance. Aso has had his, and he failed miserably.”
Led by the former LDP heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ nonetheless represents uncharted territory.
“The DPJ is more like a coalition running from the left to the right of the LDP, and many wonder if Ozawa really is an appropriate person to be prime minister,” says Prof. Ito. “The situation in the party is in flux – no one really knows where Ozawa is coming from in terms of policy.”
While he has a certain charisma, Ozawa’s capriciousness came into sharp focus last week when he questioned the U.S. military presence in Japan — home to almost 50,000 U.S. troops —suggesting that it should be limited to the services of the U.S. 7th fleet.
While that stance should generate colorful exchanges if he ever visits the White House as Japan’s leader, Ozawa has come tantalizingly close to brushing Aso and his party aside.
Yet Prof. Ito’s concerns about Ozawa’s fitness for office seem well founded, particularly after the Mar. 3 arrest of his top aide on suspicion of accepting illegal donations.
Takanori Okubo is suspected of receiving 21 million yen for Ozawa’s political funding organization from two company executives between 2003 and 2007 in violation of a law banning corporate donations to individual politicians.
While Ozawa insisted he knew nothing of the arrangements, the allegations could force him to resign before he does irreparable damage to his party’s fortunes.
Senior DPJ officials have dismissed the investigation as a politically motivated “conspiracy,” but if Ozawa is unable to recover quickly, for Aso Japan’s grubby political underbelly may yet succeed where the “Obama effect” clearly failed.
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