Aso stumbles out of the gate

In Asahi‘s latest opinion poll, the Aso cabinet’s approval rating fell seven points to 41%, and its disapproval rating rose six points to 42%. The skepticism of nonaligned voters about Aso Taro continues to grow, at least in this poll: the approval rating among nonaligned voters fell seven points to 24% and rose seven points to 48%. The DPJ also edged ahead in polling for lower house proportional representation voting.

Nakagawa Hidenao looked at this poll and concluded, “Stopping the trend of ‘It’s good to trust the DPJ with government one time’ thinking among independents ought to be placed at the center of the LDP’s strategy.”

I’m not quite clear why Mr. Nakagawa thinks that this is a viable strategy — this was the closing line to his post, so until he elaborates, it’s hard to know what he’s thinking — but I doubt that this strategy will work. How does the LDP intend to demonstrate that the DPJ doesn’t deserve even a single chance at governing, when the public is increasingly realizing that perhaps the LDP has had one too many chances at governing. Does Mr. Nakagawa really believe that the DPJ is so bad that it can’t possibly be trusted with power? Really? Worse than the worst elements of the LDP, against whom the structural reformers have struggled and continue to struggle? If so, it’s little wonder that there are few signs that the structural reformers are prepared to cut their ties with the LDP.

But given Mr. Aso’s inability to crack the fifty percent ceiling, it is no surprise that the prospect of a snap election is receding into the distance. Mr. Aso emphasized in budget committee proceedings Monday that he is not thinking about an election at all, that economic stimulus takes precedence. The possibility of a dissolution and general election before the end of October appears nil. The Aso government, it seems, is fishing for an issue that it can use to rally the public to its standard. The DPJ has wisely decided that it will not block the government’s supplementary budget containing its economic stimulus package. The bill will pass the lower house on Wednesday or Thursday before moving to the upper house, which may pass the bill by the end of next week. In doing so, the DPJ has deprived the LDP of the one issue that might have put the DPJ on the defensive. Based on opinion polls that showed considerable public interest in the economic stimulus plan, the DPJ would likely have been punished if it opposed the government’s plan. At the same time, however, the government will not get all that much credit for doing what the public expects it to do.

In the meantime, the LDP still has to find an issue that will give it some momentum in an election campaign. What’s left for the government? A unified consumer affairs agency? Not something that voters would oppose, but not exactly something they’ll be excited about either. The MSDF refueling mission? Foreign policy will not win turn the tide for the LDP, not when the DPJ can criticize the LDP for its mishandling of pensions and health care. Expect to see more of Nagatsuma Akira, the DPJ’s “Mr. Pensions,” in the coming weeks and months. On Monday, Mr. Nagatsuma questioned Mr. Aso and Masuzoe Yoichi for seventy-five minutes, asking questions on the pensions problem for more than half the time. The 2007 pensions problem may be the gift that keeps on giving for the DPJ. The LDP can promise pro-growth policies, but it has little control over whether the economy will turn around before the next election (other than delaying the election as long as possible in the hope that growth returns before September 2009). While it is unclear what impact the deepening global financial crisis will have on the Japanese economy, it will likely have a psychological impact on the Japanese public, heightening feelings of economic insecurity. This can only help the DPJ.

Little wonder that Mr. Aso’s numbers are trending downward. He is wholly unable to take control of the situation.

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