Gauging Aso’s chances

For the second year in a row, Aso Taro is the early frontrunner to seize the LDP leadership.

As noted yesterday, whether he wins this year will depend on his gaining an additional 68 votes over his 2007 total. One way to do that will be to build significantly on the 65 of 141 prefectural chapter votes that he received in September 2007.

Both Sankei and Asahi have published snap surveys of the prefectural chapter executives, providing a glimpse of how the LDP grassroots are looking at the chaos in Tokyo.

Sankei‘s survey found that twenty-two of forty-seven chapters indicated their support for Mr. Aso; the remaining twenty-five are waiting to see how the race unfolds. As far as the reasons for supporting Mr. Aso, Ibaraki’s executives pointed to what could make the difference: his desire “to continue to discuss economic problems thoroughly.” Presumably this is an oblique reference to his populism, to his claim to want to address the hardships of Japan’s rural regions, an argument that would undercut Koike Yuriko, who would run as the candidate of Koizumi-Nakagawa (Hidenao) reformism.

Asahi recorded slightly more support, with twenty-five chapters — a majority — indicating their support for Mr. Aso. Asahi does not offer a complete list, but of the supporting prefectures listed, most of them gave either all three or two of three votes to Mr. Aso last year. Asahi also found that there is only slight support (eight chapters) for calling a general election soon after the party election.

Given that as of last year only four prefectural chapters chose a candidate without a vote, whether among registered party members or local leaders, these surveys tell us little about how the vote will break down. They might even understate the support for Mr. Aso among the LDP rank-and-file.

In fact, looking at the distribution of Mr. Aso’s support last year it is difficult to see where Ms. Koike or another LDP reformist would succeed. In the four prefectures of Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama, Mr. Aso defeated Mr. Fukuda by a margin of 61,766 votes to 48,491 votes. Mr. Fukuda barely won in Saitama (444 votes out of 20,553 cast), while Mr. Aso won with sizeable to impressive margins of victory in the other three. (His most impressive victory nationwide was in Ehime, however, where he received 12,598 votes to Mr. Fukuda’s 1,160.) In short not only is Mr. Aso popular, but he’s popular in places where a reformist candidate would expect to run strong.

A year later, with the LDP in shambles and Mr. Aso riding high, he will likely build upon the bedrock of support that came out for him last year despite the overwhelming support within the LDP establishment for Mr. Fukuda.

At this point there is no sure thing — there’s still a week until candidates have to declare — but Mr. Aso’s position is strong, and with the party’s turning away from Koizumian “neo-liberalism” it will probably take another populist to defeat Mr. Aso.

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