The question is how the prime minister should proceed. At present, the HR will be voting next week to override the HC and pass the road construction plan in its current form, even as the prime minister has promised a new plan. Mr. Yamamoto himself sees no inconsistency in passing the existing plan and then revising after the fact; he recognizes, however, that the public doesn’t see it this way. Mr. Yamamoto and other potential rebels want official decisions by the cabinet and the LDP executive in support of Mr. Fukuda’s plan. Party veterans, according to Mr. Yamamoto, fear that giving Mr. Fukuda’s plan official imprimatur also means giving opponents the opportunity to sabotage the plan. Mr. Yamamoto chalks up the dispute to differing perceptions of election timing.
Is it really as simple as that? This seems to be another example of the cautious/risk-taking divide within the LDP in the face of conservative reaction (in this case in the form of the road tribe resistance to reform). For the “veterans” — Mr. Yamamoto’s word — a direct, open schism in the LDP as a result of fights in the party council and the cabinet is a greater concern than the possible electoral consequences of going forward solely on the basis of the prime minister’s promise. The young reformists want official decisions, even if it means open confrontation with the opponents of road construction reform and a greater risk of failure. As before — see the case from 2005 when the LDP council forced revisions to the postal reform bills on Mr. Koizumi by virtue of an unprecedented majority (as opposed to unanimous) vote — the veterans are willing to violate procedures and customs if doing so minimizes the risks to the party (as they see it).
Without official decisions, Mr. Fukuda’s strategy on his compromise plan amounts to telling the people, “Trust me.” It entails back-loading LDP resistance to the plan, in the hope that somehow the resistance will be placated over time. The reformists’ approach entails front-loading resistance, tackling it head on, at the beginning. Even if Mr. Fukuda’s plan gets derailed while in deliberation, at least the “opposition forces” will be out in the open, enabling the prime minister to draw a firm line on reform, à la Koizumi, and possibly revive his crumbling cabinet.
And even that probably won’t be enough to save Mr. Fukuda, given that the DPJ’s obvious retort is if it can be done from 2009, why not from 2008?
Regardless, the party’s dilemma remains. Tahara Soichiro points out in Liberal Time that although there is probably a majority within the LDP in favor of ousting Mr. Fukuda, but is deterred from pushing for his replacement for fear that the formation of a new government will prompt irresistible calls for a general election. No one in the LDP is ready to risk that, given that it could be a massacre for LDP and Komeito candidates.
But how long will Mr. Fukuda be protected by fears of a general election?
I still suspect that he has until July, after which the party will take its chances on a new leader — and perhaps even resign itself to a general election that I expect will trigger the realignment once the general election produces a nearly split HR. In short, Mr. Fukuda will most likely not have the opportunity to see his road construction plan through to fruition.