Ishikawa prefecture had its vote on Saturday, and it appears that Ishikawa will give all three of its votes to Mr. Aso. I expect Ishikawa will be only the first of many sweeps to come.
But will it matter at all? In the early days of the LDP race, it seemed possible that Mr. Aso might be able to heal the LDP’s wounds as if by magic, as if simply by having the five candidates stand side by side in apparent agreement on the problems facing Japan (and their solutions), the public would forget the years of incompetent governance and re-embrace the LDP and its “charismatic” new leader.
Alas, the fairy tale is not to be.
Mr. Aso had apparently hoped that he could do like Fukuda Yasuo, but better, using his popularity to unite the whole party in his government, heal the rift with Komeito, and then wheel about to face down Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ, first in the Diet, then in a general election campaign to come shortly after Mr. Aso bested the DPJ in Diet deliberations on a supplement budget containing an economic stimulus package. Key to his plan was ensuring that all voices were represented in his cabinet, to which end he stated that he would be happy to include his four competitors in his cabinet and party leadership.
Koike Yuriko, however, has thrown water on his scheme, declaring that the “policy differences are too great” to be included in one cabinet. The others might be more willing than Ms. Koike to join with Mr. Aso, but I doubt it. With that statement Ms. Koike has made clear that for all the cordiality in the LDP’s campaign events, the party is no less divided than it was on Sept. 1, when Mr. Fukuda resigned. Mr. Aso’s embrace of populism may make some LDP members happy — unlike Mr. Abe, Mr. Aso will come bearing gifts, not words — but there are plenty of LDP members unhappy about his new approach, not least the Koizumi children now on the chopping block when an election comes. Incidentally, if Mr. Aso is unable to form a cabinet that unites the LDP’s disparate schools of thought, will he fall back on his conservative allies to form a cabinet?
An election that Mr. Aso doesn’t prefer to discuss, perhaps because he’s realizing that the much-discussed October 26 election may not leave him enough time to bolster his and the LDP’s standing. He singled out Asahi for criticism on this score at a campaign event Friday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, reminding listeners that Asahi doesn’t hold the right of dissolving the Diet and calling an election. He insisted that people “should not speak carelessly” about the timing of an election, and made clear that a response to the worsening economy will take priority of holding an election.
As MTC makes clear (welcome back!), all of the talk about economic stimulus may ultimately be irrelevant when the general election comes. There is an unmistakable logic to Mr. Ozawa’s recent maneuvers; his coalition, argues MTC, is “an angry, broad-based, below-the-Nagatachō-radar movement,” stitching together any and all who have reason to be angry at how the LDP has governed. This coalition provides very little clue to how a DPJ-led coalition government will govern, but that’s besides the point. Whether the government calls an election next month or at year’s end, there is little Mr. Aso can do to undermine the coalition of the angry, whose grievances are the result of years of neglect or worse on the part of LDP-led governments.
Mr. Aso may be able to blunt the impact of Mr. Ozawa’s strategy — certainly better than the alternatives — but ultimately he has little control over his own fate. He will have no more control over his party and his coalition than his predecessor, and he will face potentially unbearable pressure to call an election. There will be no honeymoon for Mr. Aso.