At home, his administration is faltering.
He is under fire from within the LDP for recent gaffes. (It was only a matter of time before Mr. Aso talked without thinking.) The most politically costly gaffe may prove to be his remark that many doctors lack “common sense.” Masuzoe Yoichi, the health, labor, and welfare minister, admonished his prime minister to stay on message, as he has struggled to make the case for the LDP’s efforts to fix medical care for the elderly. Mr. Masuzoe is not alone in criticizing the prime minister. Oshima Tadamori, the LDP’s Diet strategy chairman, cautioned the prime minister to “be careful with his words.” More significantly, Karasawa Yoshihito, the chairman of the Japan Medical Association, called upon Mr. Aso to take back his remark and apologize. Chairman Karasawa’s remarks are indicative of a growing rift between the LDP and the JMA, a longtime supporter of the LDP. While the JMA may no longer wield the clout it once did — as Gerald Curtis noted — the JMA can damage the LDP simply by making a public show of breaking with the ruling party. The Ibaraki prefectural medical association has already announced that it will endorse DPJ candidates in the next general election to protest the new eldercare system. How many more will follow Ibaraki’s lead after Mr. Aso’s remarks?
More significantly, Mr. Aso may be facing a wider rebellion within the LDP on matters of policy. The prime minister told a press gaggle earlier this week that he is considering a plan that will freeze the privatization of Japan Post. It did not take long for the LDP’s remaining reformers to recoil in horror. Nakagawa Hidenao, de facto leader of the Koizumians, swore that the prime minister must not be allowed to reverse course on postal privatization. Yamamoto Ichita responded with an angry post at his blog, promising that he (and presumably his fellow reformers) would not remain silent. Mr. Yamamoto noted that if Mr. Aso were to proceed with a freeze, it would be a direct repudiation of the supermajority upon which his government is based, seeing as how the 2005 general election was contested on the very question of postal privatization. I’m not certain that the public is as enamored with postal privatization now that Mr. Koizumi’s spell has been broken. But the symbolic effect of reversing course on postal privatization would be unmistakable: it would illustrate clearly that the Japanese people have been the victim of a classic bait-and-switch in the three years since the last general election, voting for a party that promised reform without sanctuary only to be ruled by governments interested in fortifying the walls of existing sanctuaries.
Finally, a group of twenty-four young LDP reformers led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki Yasuhisa and administrative reformer minister Watanabe Yoshimi has appealed to the government for the passage of the second stimulus package during the current Diet session, echoing similar calls from the DPJ. The group called for the government to lead effectively in the face of the crisis. Kawamura Takeo, chief cabinet secretary, responded by saying that the government is reluctant to act because it cannot trust the DPJ to cooperate on the stimulus, thus illustrating the young Turks’ point. What’s the point of having a supermajority if it cannot be wielded decisively in response to a crisis? (Of course, I’m skeptical about the value of the stimulus package — this article has me convinced.) In any case, both Yomiuri and Sankei speculate whether the new group is the beginning of an anti-Aso group.
Clearly Mr. Aso’s landslide victory in September did not spell the end to the LDP’s civil war. The LDP is no less divided over its future, and despite being marginalized by Mr. Aso, the reformists are still capable of stirring up trouble for the prime minister. Mr. Aso appears to have little control over his party or the agenda. His government seems reduced to searching for new ways to rally support for the government rather than finding new policies or implementing old ones. MTC describes this as Mr. Aso’s “lightness.” I agree wholeheartedly. Mr. Aso sold himself as the agent of an aggressive reform conservatism that would reinvigorate the LDP and make the case to the public that under his leadership the LDP can be trusted to fix the problems created by Mr. Aso’s LDP predecessors. But it seems that, as MTC suggests, Mr. Aso is little more than the exhorter-in-chief, long on pep talks for the Japanese people, short on policies that will make the least bit of difference in rescuing his faltering country.
And now the LDP is stuck with him, at least until the prime minister decides to call (or is forced to call) a general election.
In the meantime, we will be treated to the spectacle of yet another prime minister’s approval ratings take a nosedive.