My sources inside the DPJ tell me that the mood within the party still anticipates a general election within the next seven months, with members divided as to whether it will be before the end of 2007 or in the springtime, following the passage of the budget. And there has yet to be any serious dissension from the party line that calls for pressuring the government to call an early election. But how long can that last?
Given the nature of Japanese campaigning, a party cannot start preparing for a general election too soon — this applies as much to incumbents as to challengers. (I saw Hayashi Jun, a Koizumi kid first elected in 2005 as a representative for Kanagawa-4, campaigning before generally indifferent passersby outside Kamakura station last week.) Not surprisingly, Koga Makoto, the LDP’s new election strategy chairman, also set to work last week on preparing the LDP for a general election, but gave no indication that he expects it to be anytime before September 2009.
I am increasingly inclined to agree with MTC on the unlikelihood of a general election until the very last minute, unless the LDP once again finds its popularity in free fall (as I think it was before the July election and in the weeks following it). If the Fukuda government squanders the opportunity afforded it by the Japanese people, who have clearly given the LDP one more chance to get things right, I cannot help but wonder whether the government might cave and call an election, perhaps finding that delaying would only contribute to the free fall. But I expect that under Mr. Fukuda the party may be able to avoid the free fall that occurred under Mr. Abe, not because there isn’t the possibility of scandals or inappropriate remarks by cabinet ministers, but because I don’t think the prime minister will let things spiral out of control — and if he manages to act on his rhetoric about fixing the problems of reform, he might buy enough credit with the public to ensure that he can escape the consequences of ministerial incompetence or malfeasance.
In the meantime, though, I think Mr. Koizumi’s characterization of the new relationship between the LDP and DPJ — as explicated by MTC here — may prove to be exactly right. As MTC wrote: “At election time and in the runup to the selection of a new prime minister, the factions sharpened and inflated their policy differences. However, once the elections were over or a new prime minister was voted into office, factions allowed these seemingly life-or-death differences to fade. Instead, what became important was finding the means to cooperate on passing legislation and equitably dividing the political spoils.”
After the sharpened partisan conflict that has surrounded the extension of the MSDF mission subsides — with the DPJ increasingly likely to face defeat on the bill — Mr. Ozawa and his party may retreat and then return to the table to talk. With the lessening of partisan tensions, calls for an early election might subside as 2007 turns into 2008, and with less focus on an imminent election, the LDP and DPJ might actually get around to legislating in the manner suggested by Mr. Koizumi, at least until late 2008 when thoughts turn to election strategy once again.
All of this means is that like in intraparty LDP competition under the 1955 system, election contests will hinge less on policy differences than on intangibles (in urban Japan)— the popularity and charisma of party heads and the candidates themselves — and tangibles (in rural Japan) — the money brought home, or not, by the incumbent.