The situation facing Aso Taro, his party, and his country is dire, and growing darker by the day. The latest development is the tent village — is it appropriate to call it an Asoville or Aso-mura? — that has been growing in Hibiya Park, populated by unemployed temporary workers with nowhere else to go. From Monday the unemployed will relocate to four sites in the Tokyo area, but after next week it is unclear what will happen to them. Asahi reports that the denizens of the temporary village will be demonstrating at the Diet on Monday.
A crowd of unemployed workers sleeping in Hibiya Park, living on emergency food aid: it is with this backdrop that the LDP approaches what may be its final Diet session (for now) as Japan’s ruling party.
Mr. Aso, in a press conference Sunday, did his best to remain positive, as is his wont. Far from heeding Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 warning about “[denying] the dark realities of the moment,” Mr. Aso insisted once again on speaking of a bright future while ignoring the ever bleaker present.
“The future,” he said, “is built by us. We build. The future is bright…I want to build a bright Japan for all the people.”
He insisted that the supplementary budget containing a second stimulus package must be passed before the end of the fiscal year. He repeated that he is not thinking about calling an election until the second 2008 supplemental and 2009 budgets are passed. He said that it is appropriate for the LDP to discuss a future consumption tax hike, following the restoration of economic growth. Finally, he concluded by saying that he is not worried about the possibility of rebellion by LDP malcontents, that he even understands their grievances.
It increasingly appears like Mr. Aso’s anodyne remarks are intended not so much to reassure the public as to reassure himself. Perhaps it’s working; maybe Mr. Aso really believes that a brighter future is right around the corner.
The reality, of course, is that it increasingly appears that not only will Mr. Aso preside over the continuing disintegration of the Japanese economy, he may also preside over a disastrous general election for the LDP and the disintegration of the LDP. Watanabe Yoshimi, the man in revolt, appears to be steeling himself for a break with the party. Speaking to his koenkai in Tochigi over New Year’s, Mr. Watananbe told his supporters that he remains opposed to the government’s two trillion yen payment plan and, moreover, that if the government does not continue to reform the bureaucracy — his pet issue — he is resolved to leave the party and place himself at the head of a popular movement. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Watanabe is bluffing. I’m inclined to believe he’s not. Indeed, it appears that Mr. Watanabe may be setting the table so that it appears that the Aso government is to blame for his leaving for failing to accept his conditions (including an immediate dissolution of the lower house followed by a general election). The pertinent question then is whether anyone will follow him out of the LDP, or, failing that, whether a popular movement will materialize around him.
Unfortunately I’m pessimistic about both. The LDP’s would-be defectors appear to have been sufficiently restrained by the party, at least until after a general election. As for the other alternative, would Mr. Watanabe be able to repeat Hosokawa Morihiro’s feat of channeling popular discontent into a new micro-party that could propel him to power? Mr. Hosokawa’s Japan New Party formed in 1992 and competed in upper house and local elections before the 1993 general election. Mr. Watanabe will have far less time. Would he be able to find enough candidates, not to mention enough field supporters, to make his movement into a factor in the post-election landscape? The presence of the DPJ will further complicate matters, potentially dampening enthusiasm that might otherwise have bolstered his movement.
In the meantime, Mr. Watanabe — along with Nakagawa Hideano and other reformists — will continue to agitate from within the LDP. Mr. Nakagawa began the year by declaring his belief in the need for a political realignment, and rejected all talk of a consumption tax hike. Discontent within the LDP will only grow in the coming months, whether or not Mr. Aso is prepared to address it.
Ozawa Ichiro is undoubtedly heartened by the news surrounding the start of the new Diet session. He reasserted the importance of putting the people’s livelihoods first and, in a deft move, criticized both the government’s delay in introducing a new stimulus package and the content of the stimulus package on offer. His point that a new stimulus package should reflect the DPJ’s concerns too is a salient one, if only because the DPJ, as the master of the upper house, should be involved in the drafting of such an importance piece of legislation. The LDP still has not learned that the divided Diet means that consulting with the opposition should occur before the introduction of legislation. Of course, doing so would probably mean cutting side payments to important LDP and Komeito constituencies. (But the DPJ is the only party playing politics with an issue of national importance…)
Mr. Ozawa also voiced his approval of Mr. Watanabe’s remarks before launching into an extended criticism of Mr. Aso’s remarks. Addressing Mr. Aso’s declaration that the key words for the Diet session are “security” and “vitality,” Mr. Ozawa said, “While saying these words, the true figure of the Aso government is that by doing nothing for three months it created a political vacuum. I think the people really understand this. Therefore it’s impossible for the people to be deceived by this word play.”
In response to a question from a journalist, who wondered why Mr. Ozawa is spending so much time on rural districts, Mr. Ozawa reasserted the importance of the DPJ’s campaigning in longtime LDP strongholds in rural Japan. He believes that the DPJ’s message of opposition to market fundamentalism, competition, and the inequalities “that have resulted from globalization” can succeed across Japan — although he declined to offer specifics for what the DPJ is promise in place of these enemies.
For now, however, it seems that the DPJ will not be penalized for doing little more than campaigning on the basis of the insecurities, the grievances, and the anger of the Japanese people. The DPJ is setting the public agenda; the LDP is now talking of “protecting the people’s livelihoods,” not unlike Mr. Ozawa’s “The people’s livelihoods first.” The party owns the issues that matter most to the public, and as the economy worsens may even appear to be a reliable steward of the economy compared to the LDP.
The DPJ should not be too upbeat. If current trends continue and if the DPJ wins this year’s election, it may come to regret taking power thanks to a historic economic crisis that appears far from finished in Japan, not to mention everywhere else.