Let’s review the facts. His personal approval rating and the approval rating of his cabinet has dipped under 30%, with negative ratings over 50%. The discontent can be found in nearly all demographic categories. While the cabinet shuffle that is almost guaranteed may alter those figures somewhat, especially if the new cabinet were to have a decidedly more Koizumian flavor, there is little reason to suspect that Abe will ever be able to recover the confidence of the Japanese people, especially if Sunday results in an overwhelming landslide for the opposition.
In fact, what I conclude from this opinion poll posted at What Japan Thinks is that the Japanese people, younger Japanese especially, not only have fond recollections of former Prime Minister Koizumi, but they are hungry for a politician genuinely capable of overcoming of reforging the political system — among the ten most highly rated politicians (given a free choice), nearly all of them are figures who have been outspoken mavericks or otherwise built or tried to build new political systems. (Koizumi was overwhelmingly the most popular, receiving 18%, with Aso Taro surprisingly coming in second with 5%.) Meanwhile, the poll finds that the quality most desired in a politician is “the ability to get things done.” The pattern established by Prime Minister Abe since taking office does not fit this mold by any means, despite his frequently stated desire to leave the postwar regime behind. He evidently lacks the political judgment, the courage, and the “common touch” required to become a popularly acclaimed systems builder, preferring superficial reforms and symbolic gestures to the tough decisions about Japan’s future that would actually constitute a break from the past.
But in addition to losing the confidence of the public, what kind of support within the LDP will Abe take from this election? Will the party barons — and the backbenchers — continue to support a loser, even one whose ideas they share? With Koizumi reemerging on the hustings, I have to wonder whether he might be the greatest beneficiary from the looming disaster. In recent days, it seems that kaikaku (reform) is once again being heard on the lips of Abe Shinzo. Reform — not revision, not ending the postwar regime. On a trip to Tohoku on Tuesday, Abe declared to voters, “The DPJ cannot reform at all. To execute reform, it’s the LDP.” If Koizumi’s help actually manages to soften the blow suffered by the government, it seems reasonable to expect that Koizumi and his followers will emerge from the election strengthened within the LDP — which would no doubt raise the hackles of his enemies within the party, who would begin to wonder whether they can rely on Prime Minister Abe as a buffer from the return of “Koizumism” (or, as seems more plausible now than before, the return of the man himself).
In any case, it’s hard to see the LDP not falling into disarray in the aftermath of this election, a new struggle for the soul of the party. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and the LDP loses big even in once-reliable strongholds in western Japan, Koizumi’s hand will undoubtedly be strengthened even more, as his argument on the need to modernize and urbanize the LDP will have new life (“We cannot even rely on the countryside anymore”).
In the midst of all this, what will Abe do? Will he begin to tack to the Koizumi line, rediscover the value of structural reform and shift his agenda accordingly (whether rhetorically or substantively)? Or will he revert to the pre-campaign policy of distancing himself from Koizumi? It is difficult to see him lasting another year if he decides to maintain his distance. Does he recognize that, or perhaps more accurately, do the people whispering in his ear, the ubiquitous Abe shuhen, recognize that? And if Abe decides to make his cabinet into a de facto extension of the Koizumi Cabinet, will the bandied-about political realignment occur? Or, on the other hand, could the now slightly more realistic prospect of being forced into opposition for only the second time ever be enough to bring the party’s leaders to see reason and prevent a civil war?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they show that however much control Abe had over the LDP in the first ten months of his premiership, it will not survive past Sunday. If he survives as prime minister, it will be because of decisions made by others. He is bloodied, perhaps unbowed — but no longer the master of his fate.