The Japanese public decides to wait and see on Aso

On Sunday, I suggested that Aso Taro would not enjoy the honeymoon enjoyed by his predecessors upon becoming prime minister.

Now that the first opinion polls are in, it is clear that the public is losing its tolerance for LDP inaction.

There was talk that the Aso cabinet might receive public approval in the sixties; isn’t that why the LDP tapped Mr. Aso in the first place?

But it was not to be. In most of the major polls, he fell short of 50% approval, falling short of even Fukuda Yasuo’s initial approval ratings. Nikkei recorded a 53% approval rating, matched by a 40% disapproval rating. It also recorded a three-point lead (36% to 33%) for the LDP in proportional representation voting in the next election. Asahi found 48% approval, 36% disapproval and recorded a 36% to 32% lead for the LDP in the PR race, Mainichi found 45% approval, 26% disapproval and a 41% to 37% lead for the LDP in which party respondents want to win the election, and Yomiuri recorded 49.5% approval and 33.4% disapproval.

I have to imagine that Mr. Aso and the LDP are unsettled by these numbers, seeing as how they’re some of the lowest figures for a new government seen since Mori Yoshiro’s cabinet. Moreover, the differentials between the disapproval and approval ratings in these polls are also some of the lowest since Mr. Mori.

The reality is that the public appears to have lost its patience with the LDP. The voters may like Mr. Aso personally — they still prefer him to Mr. Ozawa — but I’m guessing that most voters won’t be casting their votes on the basis of who they like more. Presumably if that were the case the responses to the “who do you prefer as prime minister” question would better track the “who do you want to win the next election” question. All that will matter are results. Interestingly, Mainichi found that 68% of respondents want the supplementary budget to take precedence over a general election. It also found that 66% approve of the government’s decision to put pro-growth policies before deficit cutting, and only 29% want “structural reform as promoted by former Prime Minister Koizumi” to continue, compared to 61% who don’t. The interest in the supplemental budget suggests that the DPJ must tread carefully, because if it doesn’t it could give the Aso government an issue around which to rally voters. Little surprise, meanwhile, that Koizumism is a non-starter to the public. Structural reform, it seems, is a luxury reserved for good times. What the Japanese people care about now is encapsulated in Yomiuri’s poll: (1) economic stimulus (83%), the pensions problem (79%), food safety (79%), and eldercare (72%). Furthermore, 68% approve of the LDP-Komeito agreement to review the controversial eldercare system for citizens over 75.

It seems that most voters are now looking at which party will best protect them from hardship. And so the debt will continue to go, regardless of which party wins. And the day of reckoning for the Japanese economy will come, sooner or later.

But enough gloom. There is plenty of good news for the DPJ in these results. Mr. Aso’s accesion to the Kantei turns out to have been less of a game changer than one might have thought. Mr. Aso is no less constrained than Mr. Fukuda. His henjin personality is neutralized by the fact that the public is hungry for results. The DPJ has to stand fast, remind the public of how the LDP led the country into the current mess in the first place, and point to Mr. Aso’s cabinet as a sign of just how unserious Mr. Aso is about governing. The general election is still open.

(Speaking of unserious about governing, which would you say is worse? John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate, or Aso Taro’s selection of Nakagawa Shoichi to be his finance minister? Probably the former, no contest.)

The best way to characterize this first round of polling is that the public has decided to wait and see before committing all out to supporting Mr. Aso. And given how high his disapproval ratings are already, they are skeptical about his ability to deliver results quickly.

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