Three weeks and counting

Aso Taro continues to position himself as the LDP’s savior in a rapidly approaching post-Fukuda period — in MTC’s extended (and excellent) Fukuda-as-currency analogy, Mr. Aso is hoping that he is the best store of value in a chaotic environment.

His latest move is to come out on behalf of the restoration of the temporary tax on gasoline, using the environmental logic to make the case for the tax (and perhaps to present himself as a kinder, gentler Aso Taro.) Appearing at an event in Yamaguchi prefecture with Abe Shinzo in advance of the April 27 by-election in Yamaguchi-2, Mr. Aso said, “Since the gasoline tax is cheaper, it invites the consumption of more gasoline; for Japan, which is hosting an environment summit, this is an extremely bad state of affairs.” Mr. Abe used the somewhat contradictory road construction logic, placing road construction above the environment, odd given his new environmental policy responsibilities: “I think that the consumers had a good feeling about the fall in the gasoline price, roads cannot be built and maintained. The LDP has a great responsibility to resolve this situation immediately.”

I think that while Mr. Aso (and his fellow conservatives) believe that the tax should be reinstated irrespective of the politics of the matter, Mr. Aso also figures that supporting it strengthens his political position. In the event of a new leadership election, it hardly matters that his position is antithetical to the vast majority of Japanese. It does matter that his position is consistent with forty-one LDP prefectural chapters, according to an Asahi survey of LDP and DPJ prefectural chapters. His views on the tax are also consistent with the bulk of the LDP’s parliamentary membership, although as noted by Yamamoto Ichita, it remains uncertain whether Mr. Fukuda will be able to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the temporary tax at the end of April. Mr. Yamamoto reports that nearly 200 LDP representatives support passing it again, leaving the government 120 votes short. Even if the government manages to corral Komeito members and the majority of the remaining LDP members, it will take a mere sixteen votes to scuttle the tax bill.

Would the LDP be willing to exile the sixteen (or more), in the process tossing away its supermajority? The potential dissenters, whoever they are, are incredibly powerful at this moment in time — their actions, aside from determining whether Japanese citizens have to pay more for gasoline, could be decisive in toppling the Fukuda government, breaking up the LDP, triggering a realignment, forcing a general election, or all of the above. It’s safe to assume that Mr. Ozawa will be working hard to get them to defect to the DPJ, just as the LDP’s elders will be doing the best they can to buy their allegiance (and/or threaten them with political oblivion).

As for the DPJ, based on the Asahi survey, the DPJ has its own problems with its prefectural chapters, which are split nearly evenly on the question of absorbing gasoline tax revenue into the general fund, with a slight majority (23-20) in favor of it. Oddly enough, forty-six of forty-seven chapters support Mr. Ozawa’s response to the LDP’s plan; forty-six (all except Tochigi) also oppose the extension of the temporary tax. In short, nearly half the DPJ’s prefectural chapters support the continuation of the road construction special fund, just with less revenue due to the end of the temporary tax.

The DPJ can do little more but hold the line, try to tempt LDP defectors, and watch as the LDP continues to tear itself apart on this issue.

And Mr. Aso? He may yet get his chance to lead. As before, the deciding vote will be cast by the Machimura faction’s elders, Mori Yoshiro, Machimura Nobutaka, and Nakagawa Hidenao. For the moment, Mr. Fukuda still has their confidence, but how long before they begin looking for a safer investment? And does Mr. Aso stand a chance of earning it?

It’s probably safe to say that the revote on the tax bill will make or break Mr. Fukuda. If he can somehow muster the supermajority, he will likely survive until the G8 summit, if not longer. If he can’t, his government will be finished.

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