Reading the proverbial tea leaves

In light of the new Asahi poll showing that the DPJ has expanded its lead in the proportional representation races for the Upper House, 29% to 23%, it is interesting to consider Shisaku’s discussion of whether a Lower House election is also possible this year.

Now, I don’t disagree with his conclusion: “damnably unlikely.” With its Lower House majority artificially high due to the LDP’s stealing “seats in the urban areas that by all rights should be Democratic Party seats,” there’s pretty much one way that the LDP’s majority can go. (Hint, it’s down.)

But then, a lot of people are talking about the possibility of an election. My boss, who makes no secret of his desire to attempt a jump to the Lower House at the next opportunity, anticipates the next election to be before the 2009 deadline, perhaps as early as the autumn. His staff — myself included — have focused on canvassing in the Lower House district in which he’d compete. For an election that is supposedly two years away, there is a tremendous amount of time and money being spent now.

That, of course, is no guarantee of anything, but it does show that people are taking the possibility of a Lower House election before the end of the year quite seriously.


Allow me to offer some thoughts. (Ed. — What have you been doing until now? It’s called throat clearing.) First, it seems that the Matsuoka-pensions problem double whammy has changed everyone’s thinking on the political landscape. A merely weak and unpopular cabinet seems to have been transformed into a powerless and unpopular cabinet, led by a prime minister who appears to be able to do little more than apologize, repeatedly. A gloom has descended upon Nagatacho. The Diet continues to sit, debate, and pass legislation — and may even do so for longer than scheduled — but there is no joy in Mudville. Think back to early May, when “Shinzo” was fresh from his summit with “George” and he was celebrating the constitution’s birthday by proclaiming his intention to tear it to pieces. There was a buoyancy to this government that seems all but spent.

The DPJ is now the buoyant party, as it has grasped the government’s gift with both hands and (to use another sports metaphor) is rushing for the end zone. It has been remarkably mishap-free in the weeks since the pensions issue broke, and that’s important. Yomiuri might nag about how the DPJ is short on specifics, but for the moment the public seems less concerned about the DPJ’s shortcomings than the fact that bureaucrats mishandled the pensions of millions — and the government was slow in responding to it.

So what is the significance of this? Well, if we go back to Gerald Curtis’s account of how the 1993 change of government happened, we can recall that political change in Japan is overdetermined: a number of factors, many were apparent only in hindsight, combined to unseat the scandal-ridden LDP. And much depended on the tactical decision making of individual politicians, not least Ozawa Ichiro.

What do we have today?

Corruption-tainted cabinet. Sordid, messy incident involving a cabinet minister. Prime minister lacking popular appeal. Incompetent handling of major source of income for millions. Talk of the post-Abe period by cabinet ministers. Ozawa Ichiro at the helm of the opposition (whatever his failings, he is wily and unpredictable).

These factors may not add up to significant change — but then again, they might. There’s enough uncertainty out there that I cannot rule out a Lower House election by some chain of circumstance that will look perfectly clear in hindsight, especially if the fears raised by the pensions scandal render the electorate impervious to the government’s blandishments.

And people call Japanese politics boring.

One thought on “Reading the proverbial tea leaves

  1. ross

    The only way Japan gets an early election in 07 is if there is an ugly fight over Abe\’s successor. While that would be fun to watch, I wouldn\’t bet on it. Abe likely survives if the loss is narrow. Then the coalition can expand to maintain control of the upper house. In that case, only Nakagawa Hidenao goes down. Perhaps this is why he has seemed surly of late, Nakagawa is being set up to take the fall for a bunch of much less competent people around him. Or is he always imperious? Anyway, a huge DPJ plurality win would require a near sweep in SMDs and could force the LDP to either build an oversized coalition with the DPJ or try to split off some DPJ factions. That is a situation that could tug at some fissures within the LDP as well.


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