Nearing a climax?

Japan’s political air is once again full of election talk as the end of April approaches, bringing the first by-election of the Fukuda era and the end of the sixty-day period after which the HR can vote again on the tax bill containing the temporary gasoline tax.

Ibuki Bunmei, LDP secretary-general, hinted in remarks in Nara-ken Saturday that the election will likely be held before the expiration of the term in September 2009, perhaps as early as this autumn. Mr. Ibuki suggested that Mr. Fukuda might act if he gets a tailwind so as to minimize the blow to the LDP in the general election that everyone knows is coming.

Asahi builds upon Mr. Ibuki’s remarks, noting that he added that the party is encouraged by its strong favorable ratings in public opinion polls, many of which have consistently shown the LDP receiving more support than the DPJ.

Koga Makoto, the LDP’s chief election strategist, who has been one of the leading advocates in the LDP for delaying until September 2009, has also changed his tune to echo Mr. Ibuki’s line.

Mr. Ibuki’s emphasis on the party’s popularity, however, suggests a certain distancing from the increasingly unpopular Mr. Fukuda. I suspect that the earlier the general election, the greater the chance that it will not be Mr. Fukuda who leads the party into it, especially once the G8 summit has passed. Now that Mr. Fukuda has admitted that he underwent surgery for stomach cancer nearly a decade ago, there’s even a convenient excuse for his stepping down, something like “health concerns brought on from the intense stress of the premiership.”

But regardless of whether Mr. Fukuda will be at the helm for the next election, it is worth asking whether the LDP is right to feel confident about its electoral prospects based on opinion polls showing greater support than for the DPJ. Do the party support numbers recorded in polls actually have any meaning for how people will vote? Are the LDP and Komeito really willing to bet their two-thirds majority — which Mr. Ibuki admitted will likely not be retained — on the basis of there being some significance to the polls? I have a hunch that the polls fail to capture the extent of the public’s discontent. I’m not convinced that the public is any less discontent than it was last summer when the LDP was trounced in the HC election. Will the public really be inclined to punish the DPJ more than the LDP?

The DPJ may not be able to win a majority outright, but anything close will be more than enough to topple the sitting premier, whether Mr. Fukuda or a successor, and possibly break the LDP as its contending sects battle for control of the party.

It is with this in mind that we head into the final weeks of the battle of the temporary tax and road construction. Ozawa Ichiro is still threatening a censure motion should the HR pass the tax bill again, although he has hedged on his threat by suggesting that the final decision will be for the party’s HC members to make. Whether a censure motion will have any meaning depends, of course, on the government’s response.

If the LDP’s leaders are convinced that its popularity will win the day in a general election, perhaps they will call Mr. Ozawa’s bluff.

And then?

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