Aso returns from the wilderness

Aso Taro, faction leader, former foreign minister, former LDP secretary-general (briefly), and losing contender for the LDP presidency in 2001, 2006, and 2007, essentially went into self-exile after the LDP’s faction chiefs united to deny him the premiership and make Fukuda Yasuo prime minister. He indicated that he would not accept a post in Mr. Fukuda’s cabinet or party executive. While associated in the media with Nakagawa Shoichi’s study group, he has been absent from the headlines. Since the fall of Abe Shinzo, Mr. Nakagawa has become the face of the LDP’s ideologues.

After losing in September, Mr. Aso embarked on a national tour, bringing his optimistic “Awesome Japan” message to than eighty locations around the country.

Sankei, however, has published an article that suggests that Mr. Aso may once again become an active participant in the LDP’s power struggles, positioning himself for another run for the party presidency.

To do so, however, Mr. Aso has to ingratiate himself with party elders who have long been cool to the idea of his running the party (and the country). Sankei notes that Mr. Aso met with Nakagawa Hidenao, his predecessor as secretary-general, in late January, Machimura Nobutaka, chief cabinet secretary and head of the largest faction, on 1 February, and he will travel to South Korea later this month with Mr. Nakagawa (H) and Mori Yoshiro. (He has also reached across the aisle to talk with Hatoyama Yukio and other DPJ members about his nonpartisan “Diet Members’ League for the Promotion of IT in Regional Governments.”)

After watching the party’s leaders unite against him in September, Mr. Aso has little choice but to grovel before the LDP’s powers that be. But he is also hedging. His followers still seem loyal; when a party election comes, it seems like he will once again represent the conservatives. They still think that he is the one man — echoes of his grandfather, “One Man” Yoshida — who can lead the LDP through troubled waters, thanks to his charisma. As Kyuma Fumio, described by Sankei as Aso’s “brain,” said, “If one looks around the party, only Mr. Aso can be found to have the ‘showiness’ indispensable for the party president. He has one more essential quality for a party president, ‘flexibility.'” Although Nakagawa Shoichi has been the most visible of the HANA group (excluding Hiranuma Takeo, who as an independent seems free to say whatever he wants wherever he wants), he appears to be more of a lieutenant than a leader, first to Mr. Abe, now to Mr. Aso.

With the conservatives suddenly active in opposing the Fukuda government’s agenda, over the human rights bill (discussed here), Mr. Aso’s return comes at an auspicious time. I still do not anticipate an overt challenge to the government by the conservatives before a general election, but Mr. Aso’s return to the limelight could signal a decisive rejection by the conservatives of the Hiranuma line — the call for the creation of an ideologically pure conservative party — and a clear move to focus their efforts on retaking the LDP from Mr. Fukuda and his “liberal” allies.

This is hinted at in an acronym suggested to Mr. Nakagawa (S) by Mr. Aso: NASA, for Nakagawa, Aso, Suga (Yoshihide, minister of internal affairs and communications under Mr. Abe), and Amari (Akira, METI minister under Mr. Abe, staying on with Mr. Fukuda). This formula, an alteration of the HANA acronym, drops Mr. Abe, who seems consigned to the ash heap of history, and Mr. Hiranuma, who is not a member of the LDP and whose activities with Mr. Nakagawa have led some party leaders, most notably Mr. Mori, to criticize Mr. Nakagawa for being disloyal.

For Mr. Aso, keen to be at the helm of party and nation, distancing himself from both Mr. Abe and Mr. Hiranuma is a wise move that can only strengthen his efforts to repair his relationship with party elders.

Whether Mr. Nakagawa is prepared to do the same, however, is unclear. He responded to Mr. Aso’s suggestion by joking, “Are we also doing space flight?”

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