At the same time, the LDP field has widened to five candidates, each with markedly different viewpoints.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Ozawa’s uncontested reelection has been unfavorably contrasted with the LDP’s heavily contested election in the political press, leading me to wonder whether the LDP field expanded largely to show up the DPJ. (I don’t seriously believe this, but I’m sure that LDP elders aren’t complaining.) Mainichi describes the DPJ as “jealous” of the LDP’s election. And a poll of LDP prefectural chapter chiefs found that they believe that the party’s image will be enhanced by an “open” election.
Should the DPJ really be jealous of the LDP? If the LDP’s election is fiercely contested, it is only because the party has been drifting aimlessly in the two years since Koizumi Junichiro left office, leaving the party fundamentally divided on the most important policy questions facing the government. With Mr. Abe’s emphasis on Japanese “culture war” issues and Mr. Fukuda’s political balancing act, the LDP has punted on pressing issues like the budget deficit, the persistent pensions problem, education reform, the road construction budget, rural stagnation and on and on. So yes, perhaps the LDP will have a spirited debate in the weeks leading up to the party presidential election. But why should the LDP be praised for this debate when for the past two years it has avoided forging a consensus and addressing the aforementioned issues?
For all the self-congratulation about the debate the LDP will have over the next two weeks, the party is still prepared to back Aso Taro and his “populist” agenda, of which rival candidate Ishihara Nobuteru has said, “If we unify under Secretary-General Aso, we will be the same as Ozawa’s DPJ.”
Mr. Aso has released his policy platform to allow voters to judge for themselves. Resting on the principles of (1) a society that can feel at ease, (2) an aged society with vitality, (3) robust regions, and (4) a country open to the world, Mr. Aso has promised tax cuts in the short-term, regulatory reform, and support for high technology R & D, as well as assistance to the “working poor.” Mr. Aso is not so much copying Mr. Ozawa as answering the critique of the Ozawa DPJ that led to the LDP’s defeat in 2007. As argued by Morita Minoru in his Jiminto no shuen (The End of the LDP), the LDP under Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe turned a blind eye towards stagnation in rural Japan, neglect that Mr. Ozawa has successfully exploited in his campaigning in the countryside.
I’ve argued before and I will keep arguing it: Mr. Aso deserves credit for his response to his defeat in last year’s party election and the LDP’s defeat in July 2007. He is trying to find a way to recreate the LDP as a national party, promising assistance to stagnant regions and help to the forgotten (young) men and women in urban areas. Whether that will be a successful general election coalition remains to be seen, but Mr. Aso is at least putting his popularity to work in an attempt to address the most pressing problems facing Japan (all but the budget problem, which under a Prime Minister Aso will go unaddressed for the indefinite future).
Foreign observers must not let their distaste for Mr. Aso’s cultural and historical views blind them when assessing Mr. Aso’s strengths and vision. He has learned from the Abe disaster — and from Mr. Ozawa’s politicking. He may be the only candidate in the LDP field who combines a popular touch with an agenda that is easily explained and appeals to urban, suburban, and rural voters. If any candidate can deprive the DPJ of the votes to win a majority or a plurality large enough to support a DPJ-led coalition, Mr. Aso is it. If he wins the LDP election, he will still face an uphill battle against a DPJ that has benefited from years of LDP missteps and is led by a leader capable of exploiting them, but with Mr. Aso the election will be closer than otherwise. The national appeal of Koizumism is limited in the absence of the master prestidigitator, undermining the Koike and Ishihara candidacies; Mr. Yosano is a non-starter for his emphasis on fiscal shock therapy; and Mr. Ishiba’s views on issues other than defense policy are largely unknown, making his candidacy little more than an effort to raise his profile as a future leader.
Given the strength of Mr. Aso’s grassroots support, it’s possible that he could clinch the presidency in the first round of voting. Will the parliamentary LDP dare to reject Mr. Aso should he ride into Tokyo with the overwhelming support of the prefectural rank-and-file? And should the election go to a runoff, Mr. Aso will likely be helped by a decision to permit prefectural chapter representatives responsible for the 141 prefectural votes to cast ballots in the second round.
And then the general election, which could be held as early as November. Looking at the map of places where Mr. Aso ran strongly in 2007 and where the DPJ won in 2007, there is not inconsiderable overlap.