Aso seals the deal, and the LDP pats itself on the back

The campaign to replace Fukuda Yasuo as LDP president and prime minister officially began on Wednesday, with the five candidates — Aso Taro, Koike Yuriko, Yosano Kaoru, Ishihara Nobuteru, and Ishiba Shigeru — holding a joint press conference before traveling the country to campaign.

The press conference makes clear just how farcical claims of the LDP’s “open” election are. Yes, there are five candidates vying for the slot, compared with Ozawa Ichiro’s uncontested reelection as DPJ president. But for all the talk of an open election, the candidates papered over points of disagreement, refused to commit to any concrete steps to fix the budget, and took turns criticizing Mr. Ozawa for his failures to consult, explain, and persuade — and his party’s lack of experience at governing (because the LDP’s track record suggests that experience correlates strongly with performance, right?).

In reality, the LDP couldn’t have wished for a better way to see off the bad taste left by Mr. Fukuda. The LDP gets a chance to show up the DPJ — see! this is what intraparty democracy looks like — without there being little chance of genuine and open disagreement or the possibility that something unexpected might happen (see below). If I were more conspiratorially minded, I would think that the candidates were hand-picked to maximize the PR advantage to the LDP. (In the same vein, reading that Ms. Koike was forced to close her campaign office for an ambiguous problem with the real estate agent really makes me wonder whether there is something to this — did she not get the memo that she’s in the race as window dressing, and therefore someone had to send the message that she shouldn’t take the election too seriously?) But I’m not inclined to think that the LDP elders coordinated the campaign of five. Nakagawa Hidenao is certainly taking the race seriously enough. It appears that the LDP just got lucky: Mr. Fukuda resigned just in time for the election to coincide precisely with the DPJ’s uncontested election and enough of the LDP’s younger, more popular figures feel they stand a chance against Mr. Aso, helping the LDP look more dynamic and in touch than both Mr. Ozawa — that old dictator — and the hapless Mr. Fukuda.

But there really is little doubt that Mr. Aso will win the premiership.

Polls of both LDP Diet members and party rank-and-file suggest that Mr. Aso may be in a position to secure a majority in the first round, obviating the need for a second. Asahi surmises that it is probable that he will do so, looking at the support for Mr. Aso in the prefectural chapters and in the parliamentary party. Asahi projects that Mr. Aso will receive at least 63 of the 141 votes from prefectural chapters, with a final tally considerably more than 63. Suggesting the strength of Mr. Aso’s grassroots support, Asahi expects that Mr. Aso will win three votes even in prefectural chapters distributing votes proportionally.

Asahi also expects him to receive a majority of LDP parliamentarians, but given that the preferences of faction leaders no longer determine how faction members vote, it is harder to predict exactly how the parliamentary vote will break down. It is clear, however, that we are witnessing the first officially post-factional LDP presidential election: the Tsushima (second largest), Koga (third largest), Yamasaki (fourth largest), and the Komura (eighth largest) factions have announced that their members will be free to vote for whichever candidate they prefer, and with the Machimura faction divided between supporters of Mr. Aso and Ms. Koike, the Machimura faction is effectively following the same rule. Yomiuri estimates that Mr. Aso has the support of forty percent of the 386 Diet members (approximately 155 members), meaning that he needs only 109 more votes to win the election in the first round. It’s possible that he will receive those 109 votes from the prefectural chapters alone, which will in turn bolster his parliamentary votes (undoubtedly some Diet members will be swayed by the results from their home prefectures).

Public opinion polls confirm Mr. Aso’s support. Yomiuri finds that Mr. Aso is the only candidate but Mr. Ishihara who beats Mr. Ozawa in face-to-face matchup, and by a large margin: 59% to 27.6%. Mr. Ishihara barely edges out Mr. Ozawa, 43.5% to 40.1%, while the other three all trail Mr. Ozawa by more than ten percentage points. Asahi‘s nationwide poll found Mr. Aso to be the most appropriate candidate for the premiership with 42% support, with Mr. Ishihara once again ranking second with 10%. Mr. Aso won points for his perceived “ability to get things done.”

But no matter how sizeable Mr. Aso’s victory, he will be under pressure to perform immediately. As already noted by Ken Worsley and elaborated further by Mary Stokes at Nouriel Roubini’s Global EconoMonitor, Japan’s economy shrank by 3% annualized in the second quarter, instead of the original figure of 2.4%. The outlook for the new government is bleak — get the economy growing again, only to get the economy healthy enough to take measures to fix the budget deficit (i.e., a consumption tax increase, which all the LDP candidates see as necessary at some point in time).

Even if the new government passes a stimulus package as a prelude to an election which it then proceeds to win, it will be in an unenviable position. The DPJ may prefer that it lose the next election, leaving an Aso government with the tasks of battling the recession and then the budget.

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