The LDP field coalesces

Despite a political situation that has already consumed the careers of two LDP prime ministers — cowards, says Newsweek‘s Christian Caryl, and he has a point — there are now four candidates running to serve as the next LDP president and prime minister.

I think Aso Taro remains the front runner, for reasons enunciated here and here.

Arguably his position is strengthened by the proliferation of anti-Aso candidates.

Not only will Mr. Aso be running against Koike Yuriko, the “structural reform” candidate, but Yosano Kaoru, the leading “fiscal reconstructionist,” and Ishihara Nobuteru, a veteran of Koizumi’s cabinets and briefly LDP policy chief under Abe Shinzo, have also announced their candidacies.

Each has significant liabilities, effectively summarized by Yamauchi Koichi, the blogging first-term LDP lower house member:

Mr. Aso supports abandoning fiscal discipline to provide economic stimulus for suffering citizens.

Mr. Yosano is of the “fiscal reconstruction school, the consumption tax increase school.”

As for Mr. Ishihara, “it is reported that he is of the structural reform category,” but on political reform he approved the return of postal rebels to the LDP.

And about Ms. Koike, the candidate who I would expect him to support, he writes, “Ms. Koike is of the structural reform school and is Japan’s first female prime ministerial candidate — she has a newness and I have a relatively good impression of her. But regarding economic policy and administrative reform, I still don’t have a good understanding of Ms. Koike’s thinking.”

While foreigners know Mr. Aso best for his history of outrageous statements and his nationalism, he clearly stands above his rivals in this race.

Ms. Koike is an unknown, her candidacy perhaps more a reflection of Koizumi nostalgia (speaking of which, Mr. K has been curiously absent during the past week) among the media than a durable base of support from either her fellow LDP Diet members or the party’s grassroots.

Mr. Yosano is saddled with the burden of being the only LDP leader with the spine to speak of a consumption tax hike, which might be necessary down the road but is a non-starter within the LDP for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Ishihara perhaps stands the best chance of upsetting Mr. Aso. A representative from Tokyo, he might be able to pry away Mr. Aso’s urban supporters. He is articulate but has a lower profile than Mr. Aso — Mr. Aso can and will claim that he stands the best chance of stopping Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ in its tracks (by stealing a page from Mr. Ozawa’s playbook), citing polls like this one from Asahi showing substantial support for Mr. Aso as the next prime minister. But who will be voting for Mr. Ishihara? Will Ms. Koike and Mr. Ishihara split the reformist vote? Will he be able to draw conservatives away from Mr. Aso?

Mr. Aso has the most clearly defined base of support, and quite possibly the supporters most eager to win (or reclaim) the premiership. He has concluded — like Mr. Ozawa — that the next general election will be won in the LDP’s old rural heartland, and it will be won by promising as much as possible to rural voters and mentioning structural reform as little as possible. He will ride that strategy into the premiership, and, he hopes, into a general election mandate.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Aso Taro has learned from Mr. Abe’s disastrous government. Whether he is genuinely concerned about the hardships experienced by the Japanese people or not, Mr. Aso knows that addressing them is the only way for a government to last. It is also the only way for a prime minister to indulge his interest in foreign policy. Accordingly, Mr. Aso has been silent on foreign policy and may even be willing to sacrifice the refueling mission to shore up the LDP’s ties with Komeito to bolster the coalition government.

Do not underestimate Aso Taro.

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