The Yomiuri Shimbun has released its December public opinion poll, which found that not only has the Aso cabinet’s approval rating fallen by half since the beginning of November (from 40.5% to 20.9%), but the cabinet’s disapproval rating rose by twenty-five points to 66.7% during the same span of time. The poll contains bad news for the LDP on every front. The DPJ has edged ahead of the LDP in baseline approval rating (28.2% to 27.2%) and opened a commanding lead in support in the next general election (40%, a ten-point increase, to 24%, an eight-point drop) — and, moreover, Ozawa Ichiro scored higher than Prime Minister Aso when respondents were asked who is the most appropriate choice as prime minister (Mr. Ozawa’s support rose to 36%, a fourteen-point increase, while Mr. Aso’s fell twenty-one points to 29%). This last figure is a critical indicator for the next general election, because voters have not only abandoned Mr. Aso, they also appear to be warming to Mr. Ozawa, depriving the LDP of the argument that no matter how unpopular the LDP is, the public still does not trust Mr. Ozawa.
(For the record, Asahi‘s monthly tracking poll recorded similar numbers. Twenty-two percent approval rating compared to a sixty-four percent disapproval rating and a dramatic fall and rise in support for Mr. Aso versus Mr. Ozawa for prime minister.)
The only heartening news — if one can call it that — is that more respondents preferred a political realignment over a DPJ-centered or LDP-centered government, or a grand coalition, the second-most preferred option.
Of course, a political realignment is not good news at all for the LDP, seeing as how for the moment the realignment could consume the LDP while leaving the DPJ comparatively unscathed. While Nakagawa Hidenao has spoken of uniting reformers from both parties, it appears for the moment that there is no better cure for the DPJ’s internal disputes than the belief that the party is poised to seize power.
But the LDP’s reform movement continues apace. Appearing on Fuji TV Sunday, Watanabe Yoshimi doubled down on his challenge to Mr. Aso, suggesting that he is steeling his resolve to overturn the cabinet and arguing that an election at the close of the extraordinary Diet session is essential if Japan’s government is to be capable of formulating policy. As MTC argued recently, Mr. Watanabe may be poised to do what his father was unable to do — deliver the death blow to the LDP. It is yet unclear whether he will be able to muster the support to overturn the cabinet, perhaps by voting against the government when one of the bills requiring a second vote by the House of Representatives comes before the lower chamber. He may have some help from Kato Koichi, who could be prepared to make a second bid to overturn an unpopular LDP prime minister and has been in talks with the DPJ and the PNP about electoral cooperation and the formation of a new party. Nakagawa Hidenao, undoubtedly an indispensable player in any rebellion by LDP reformists against Mr. Aso, is reportedly skeptical about leaving the LDP before a general election, presumably because to do so would be to diminish his bloc’s bargaining power. At this point the plan seems to be close ranks, prepare to contest a general election under the LDP’s banner but in opposition to the standard-bearer, and then see the post-election balance of power. If neither the DPJ nor the LDP achieves a majority, the LDP reformists may make all the difference in determining who controls the government. (Koike Yuriko, one of his lieutenants and another player in the fight between reformists and the LDP establishment, is reportedly “tired” of forming new parties, given that she spent the 1990s jumping from new party to new party. Her attitude may simply be a means of reinforcing Mr. Nakagawa’s efforts to proceed deliberately.)
Mr. Aso’s allies appear to be closing ranks, with both Abe Shinzo — representing the conservative bloc — and Machimura Nobutaka — representing the party elders — criticizing Mr. Watanabe and the other reformist opponents of the Aso government. Yamamoto Ichita, a natural leader of the reformists, has also been hesitant to echo Mr. Watanabe’s full-throated opposition to Mr. Aso. In a post at his blog, he relates what he sees as the honne of the young reformers. Mr. Yamamoto dismisses the idea of replacing Mr. Aso before an election, arguing that the public would be gravely insulted, even if an election were held immediately after the formation of the new cabinet. Furthermore, he suggests that it is unreasonable to think that the LDP will be able to fix its problem simply by finding a new, more dynamic leader (he dismisses this as the Kimu Taku option, referring to Kimura Takuya’s teledrama Change). This sounds like another version of Mr. Nakagawa’s argument. Hold steady and prepare for the next election, but be ready to act following the election.
In considering the rapid decay of the Aso government, it bears mentioning that the reformist rebellion is not primarily an opportunistic response to the government’s falling popularity. As I have argued previously, the rift between the LDP’s reformists and the rest of the party has been building for years. Mr. Aso may have forced the rift open by making it clear upon taking office that his government would move away from Koizumi-ism and consolidate the LDP’s counter-reformation, making it clear to reformers that the party no longer had a place for them, but he did not create the conflict between the LDP’s ideological tendencies. The poll numbers may have provided the reformists with an opportunity to launch their attack, thanks to the combination of public sympathy for their efforts to trigger a realignment and a government powerless to stop their machinations, but this conflict has been a long time coming.
With even the LDP executive beginning to contemplate holding an election in January instead of convening the regular session of the Diet immediately following the New Year holiday to pass a second supplementary budget, the conflict may reach its climax sooner rather than later.
It appears increasingly likely that Mr. Aso will go down in history as having presided over the destruction of the party whose creation his grandfather so vociferously opposed. There is a certain rhythm to history, isn’t there?