The curtain comes down on the ordinary Diet session — and Fukuda and the LDP?

The 169th ordinary session of the Diet comes to an end Saturday, with the comprehensive economic partnership agreement with ASEAN passing naturally. The session ends with the prime minister’s having been censured by the upper house and three opposition parties’ boycotting proceedings (with a handful of exceptions). Mainichi reports that of eighty bills submitted by the government, only sixty-three passed for a success rate of 78.8%. Not only that, the eighty bills submitted was lower than the usual 100-120 bills per session.

It’s not clear to me why this should be surprising. The government doesn’t control the upper house. The opposition can and has held up legislation it opposes. If anything, it’s remarkable that the government was able to achieve a 78.8% success rate — and that it was able to do so having only used its lower house supermajority on a handful of occasions.

There will be much wailing and rending of garments about the gridlock of the nejire kokkai, but I am not convinced that divided government has been an unmitigated disaster for Japan. The DPJ has managed to balance, however unsteadily, its roles as leading opposition party and master of the upper house.

The biggest problem, the leading obstacle standing in the way of the major changes Japan needs is not the divided Diet but the divided LDP. The toughest policy battles the prime minister has had to wage have not been across party lines but within the LDP (with the exception of the anti-terror law). Mr. Fukuda’s battles against his own party will only intensify in the autumn as he attempts to force the party to follow him in phasing out the road construction fund and raising the consumption tax rate. The LDP remains the leading opponent of reform, regardless of what its leaders say.

As a result of tension within the LDP (and the DPJ), talk of a political realignment, most likely after the next general election, remains common. While his popularity has improved slightly in the final weeks of the session, Mr. Fukuda may still end up presiding over the destruction of his party — unless someone forces him out first.

It is possible that after playing host to his fellow G8 leaders in two weeks, Mr. Fukuda will opt to reshuffle his cabinet. Yomiuri reports that he is “groping towards” a post-summit reshuffle that will revitalize the government in advance of what will be a busy extraordinary session — and a long extraordinary session, as it will likely begin at the end of August to leave the government enough time to pass the refueling mission extension by Article 59 if necessary. A reshuffle, however, will not save his government. It might in fact hasten his demise, should the reshuffle free senior LDP politicians now serving in the cabinet to speak against the government. As Mainichi reports, a reshuffle could just as easily lead to disorder within the party. (And there’s still the question of whether the prime minister would bring Mr. Aso and/or Mr. Yosano, the leading contenders to replace him, into a new cabinet.)

Some LDP members are looking for a savior — see this post — but no one person can save the LDP. Something appears to have snapped in the Japanese people. Or more accurately, something appears to have snapped in rural voters, who have continued to vote for the LDP in large numbers even as their city cousins abandoned the LDP to become DPJ voters (or floating voters). The number one task for Mr. Fukuda was and is healing the rift between the LDP and its rural supporters that opened under Mr. Abe and played an important role in the party’s defeat in the upper house election last July. There is no indication that Mr. Fukuda has made any progress in repairing the LDP’s prospects in rural areas. Indeed, after the over-75 eldercare system rollout, the situation is even worse.

This is the reality facing the LDP. There seems to be little Mr. Fukuda can do to change it. The question now is whether the LDP will give someone else a chance to try to save the LDP before the next general election.

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