He had previously stated that he shared the LDP leadership’s view that an early election is unnecessary, but Monday he warned that an election is coming soon — and LDP members must be prepared for it.
I’m not convinced that the LDP will be so easily pressured into calling an early election with Mr. Fukuda’s popularity reaching new lows and trending in the direction of Mr. Mori’s abyssal figures. All sinking popularity tells me is that it is increasingly likely that it will not be Mr. Fukuda who leads his party into a general election. And what guarantee is there that a leadership change would prompt a general election? Yamamoto Ichita is adamant that another leadership change must necessarily trigger a general election lest the LDP face a severe backlash from the public. But is that really the case? The premiership passed from Hashimoto Ryutaro to Obuchi Keizo to Mori Yoshiro before the government called an election in 2000 — and given that the HR wasn’t dissolved until two months into Mr. Mori’s government, the LDP was clearly prepared to wait until the very last moment, which would have been October 2000, before seeking a mandate from the public. The June 2000 election happened only because of mounting criticism of Mr. Mori due to the corrupt manner in which he was selected as prime minister and his unfortunate “nation of the gods” remark. The LDP will do everything it can to delay the general election into the last moment; in the event of a leadership change I’m certain the party will conjure up some excuse for why now is not a good time to hold an election (too many urgent problems to solve, it will make Japan look bad the year it’s hosting the G8, etc.), and the conservative press will help make the sale.
As such, the jockeying for position in the post-Fukuda sweepstakes is set to intensify. We’re already heard quite a bit about Mr. Aso’s efforts to position himself to take power, but expect to hear more about a possible Yosano cabinet (given that Yosano Kaoru is at this moment the presumptive favorite to be the Anybody-But-Aso candidate). For the moment Mr. Yosano is being coy. He appeared on a talk show Monday evening, where he was asked about speculation about his replacing Mr. Fukuda: “I’m surprised that such talk has come so quickly. I am the kind of politician who does other than politicking — I just focus on the question of what needs to be done to solve difficult problems.” That answer strikes me as a way of making the case for a Yosano premiership without saying so. What he may actually be saying is, “In contrast to Mr. Aso, I’m not campaigning for the job.” Regardless, this response will likely fuel speculation about Mr. Yosano’s readiness for the premiership.
Sankei speculates that a cabinet reshuffle is the prime minister’s ace, and suggests that Mr. Fukuda would try to “entrap” possible successors in his cabinet. Would Mr. Aso reject a cabinet offer this time around? Meanwhile, there is no reason why a cabinet reshuffle would save Mr. Fukuda. His problem is not his cabinet, aside from a minister or two. His problem is that his party is at war with itself and doesn’t know how to deal with a divided Diet, problems that would swamp all but the most talented of politicians.
In short, I expect that if Mr. Fukuda manages to get the tax reinstated, he’ll make it to the G8 summit in July, after which Mr. Mori and others will suggest that he step down for health reasons. If he doesn’t, we might see a new prime minister before the summit.