Ozawa prepares for his last stand

Mr. Ozawa, back at the helm of the DPJ — and apparently no longer estranged from the other party leaders — has fixed his attention squarely on a campaign that many seem to think will happen any day now (another “Happening Dissolution” [Japanese Wikipedia]).

Accordingly, the DPJ is scrambling about to conclude the nomination process for its candidates for a general election.

At present, there remain eight-five districts (out of 300) for which the DPJ has not designated a candidate, with the ultimate aim being between 270 and 280 candidates for the single-seat districts (the remainder being DPJ-backed Socialist and Kokuminto candidates). The vacancies, according to Mainichi, are particularly pronounced in urban areas, with candidates nominated for only thirteen of Tokyo’s twenty-five districts. Asahi notes the same, but also suggests that DPJ may end up with only 250 candidates of its own.

Mr. Ozawa has acknowledged the difficulty the DPJ faces in a general election, and suggests that the party’s goal is to become the largest party in the House of Representatives — as opposed to winning an outright majority — and form a coalition with other opposition parties. Even that may be a stretch.

Given the documented discrepancy in Japanese voting patterns between Upper House and Lower House elections, given Mr. Fukuda’s skill at navigating the perilous situation he inherited upon taking office (with the help of his predecessor’s dismal performance making him look great without doing much of anything), and given the very public display of the DPJ’s internal disorder, it seems extremely unlikely that the LDP would lose its position as the largest party in the House of Representatives. It may lose its supermajority in the event of a snap election, but I think the Japanese people are still willing to give Mr. Fukuda a chance. Recent opinion polls on the Fukuda cabinet may be downward trending — a recent NHK poll (not online) showed a four-point drop to 54%, a recent Sankei poll showed a fourteen point drop to 41% (largely due to the idea that Mr. Fukuda wanted a grand coalition with the DPJ) — but a recent Nikkei poll found a four-point drop (to 28%) in support for the DPJ, with a four-point increase (to 42%) for the LDP. The bottom certainly hasn’t dropped out of support for Mr. Fukuda, and a good performance in Washington — which, as today’s Nelson Report confirms, truly is more open-ended than US-Japan summits have been of late — could shore up his support.

The DPJ has yet to give the voters any reason to defect from the LDP. The key to a general election remains rural Japan. Mr. Ozawa undoubtedly still hopes that he can pry rural voters away from the LDP again, with the result that the LDP’s norin zoku are panicking and will no doubt put pressure on Mr. Fukuda to throw some pork (“emergency countermeasures” in response to the fall in the price of rice, for example) their way as the budget process progresses. The DPJ has already passed its plan for income compensation for farmers in the Upper House — and it’s unclear what the LDP will do in response. Kan Naoto suggested, “The LDP is working to adopt the DPJ’s thinking.”

Whatever his desire for fiscal rectitude, Mr. Fukuda may find demands for more largess for farmers irresistible. What better way for him to placate LDP backbenchers, shore up support in the countryside, and steal the DPJ’s thunder.

But will Mr. Fukuda be tempted to strike fast and call an early election, while the DPJ is disorganized? I still think that Mr. Fukuda would like to keep the DPJ guessing right up to September 2009.

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