Campaigning starts in earnest

With the campaign (unofficially) underway — thank you, public elections law — we are now in for a month of maneuvering and campaigning as government and opposition camps push for the seats necessary for an Upper House majority. Yomiuri’s latest poll showed the DPJ enjoying a three-point edge over the LDP in proportional representation (25% to 22%), and the LDP enjoying a narrower edge in electoral districts (24.2% to 22.8%). It also echoed the cabinet’s dismal support rate (32% in favor, 53.9% disfavor) found in other polls — and confirmed that Ozawa is right to emphasize that this will be the pensions election.

68.8% of respondents said that pensions are the most important issue in the election, followed distantly by education (40.8%), “politics and money” (39.0%), economic growth (31.4%), and beyond that in the twenties social inequality, administrative reform, foreign and security policy, and constitution revision. Keep in mind, of the respondents to this poll, a plurality support the LDP (32.1%), followed by floating voters (31.8%) and the DPJ (21.3).

And yet at the same time the governing coalition has received its first bit of good news in weeks, with two members of Tanaka Yasuo’s Shintō Nihon, Upper House member Arai Hiroyuki and Lower House member Taki Makoto, announcing their decision to leave the party to become independents. Meanwhile, Matsushita Shinpei, a DPJ-aligned independent from Miyazaki in the Upper House, announced that he would break his cooperation with the DPJ. Both Matsushita and Arai are former LDP members, and while neither has signaled that they will return to the party, the government will undoubtedly push hard for their support, formally or informally. As Jun Okumura argues, given the probability of Arai’s supporting the government, this news lowers the threshhold for the governing coalition by at least one seat. (Jun’s thoughts on whether the Kokumin Shintō will support the government, despite the party’s leadership nixing the idea, are especially worth reading.)

All of which goes to show that the LDP, while bruised, is still in the fight.

Meanwhile, the Economist has some speculation as to what will happen should Prime Minister Abe resign following a defeat (which is by no means guaranteed), suggesting that a resignation following a narrow loss could lead to an orderly election fight among Aso, Tanigaki, and possibly a challenger from the younger generation.

A bigger loss could result in a caretaker government. And most unlikely, the election could spark a political realignment one way or another, with parties breaking and reemerging along policy or generational lines (an outcome that probably made more sense during the Koizumi years than today). I suspect the latter is grounded more in wishful thinking — of both the Economist and of certain Japanese politicians — than in a clear assessment of probabilities. In particular, if this election is in fact Ozawa’s last stand, the DPJ might emerge from the election a more attractive force for younger politicians.

That is a good reminder of how Japanese politics is changing, slowly. Regardless of the election results, with each election, more of the leftovers from the 1955 system are chased out of power. With each round of elections, young, policy-oriented politicians find themselves in ever more important positions (albeit not the party leadership, after the Maehara debacle). But how long can Japan wait for its younger generation of leaders to rise to the top naturally?

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