Plus ça change…

There appears to be little doubt that on Thursday Aso Taro will announce a new set of economic measures — and will also announce that he will not schedule an election for the later part of November. Yomiuri reports that Oshima Tadanori, the LDP’s parliamentary affairs chairman, has voiced his disagreement with the prime minister’s intention to postpone an election, arguing that delaying will make the opposition less willing to cooperate with the government on its agenda. Nikai Toshihiro, METI minister, and Amari Akira, administrative reform minister, have sided with the prime minister, citing the urgency of the global financial crisis.

“Not before the end of November” probably also means not before the end of this year. Asahi speculates that the next possible dates are at year’s end after the budget compiliation for the next fiscal year, in January at the start of the next regular session of the Diet, or April, after the passage of the budget. Yamamoto Ichita, however, suggests that delaying now means that it is likely that Mr. Aso will delay until September 2009. I’m with him. Barring an unlikely uptick in Japan’s economic fortunes (or in the LDP’s standing in public opinion polls), I see no reason why the prime minister would chance an election unless he had no other choice, as will be the case in September.

An Asahi poll suggests that the public is not in a hurry to vote. In a dramatic reversal, 57% of respondents (up from 33%) think that an election is not urgently necessary. The poll contains some less-than-good news for the prime minister, however. It lends support to the idea that the government may be pushing on a string when it comes to building public support with its economic stimulus plans. Respondents were nearly divided on the value of the government’s stimulus package, with 40% approving and 41% disapproving. Perhaps the next package will tip the balance, but the government’s support may depend on which pages of the newspaper citizens read: are they swayed more by the relentless string of bad news on the financial pages or the promises of stimulus to come on the politics page?

Regardless of how the government will fare in the court of public opinion, the DPJ is already repositioning itself to respond to the delay (beyond calling Mr. Aso a chicken). While Okada Katsuya, the DPJ president who led the party into the last general election, doesn’t want to believe that Mr. Aso means what he says, the DPJ appears to be taking Mr. Aso at his word. The response? For now, backing off on a promise not to hold up the government’s new bill authorizing the MSDF refueling mission in the upper house. The upper house foreign affairs committee was supposed to vote on the bill Tuesday, but the DPJ’s upper house affairs chairman denied an LDP request for a vote. The rejection may be part of a strategic decision by the DPJ to back away from cooperation now that the government is signalling that it will a delay an election.

It is unlikely that the DPJ will uniformly oppose the government, seeing as how it has little to gain from obstructing the government’s efforts to respond to the crisis. (At least I hope it will see that there is little sense in being wholly uncooperative — the DPJ is currently mulling its response to the government’s plan for shoring up troubled financial institutions.)

In short, the political system is back to where it was when Fukuda Yasuo decided to depart. The DPJ is hungry for an election, the LDP sees no reason to hurry given external events. The DPJ will cooperate with the government on an ad hoc basis, the LDP will paint the DPJ as putting politics before country.

Expect another ten months of this.

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