Aso the impervious?

The bad news keeps coming for Prime Minister Aso Taro.

He has been hit with another wave of negative poll results. In Yomiuri, his approval rating is a hair over 20%, while his disapproval has broken 70%, rising to 72.3%. In the same poll, Ozawa Ichiro remains gained another three points in the question of who would be better as prime minister, while Mr. Aso lost two more points — giving Mr. Ozawa a 39% to 27% advantage. It may not be an overwhelming lead, but considering that the LDP has long hoped to make Mr. Ozawa a liability for the DPJ, Mr. Ozawa’s now persistent lead is enough to suggest that the LDP will have a hard time making the general election about Mr. Ozawa (as opposed to the LDP’s numerous mistakes). Mr. Aso’s numbers were just as bad in the Fuji-Sankei poll, 18.2% in favor compared with 71.4% unfavorable. Reportedly Mr. Aso received comparatively high marks for his personality, but receives little support for his foreign and economic policies, and his leadership capabilities. Moreover, Mr. Ozawa enjoys a 41% to 25.2% advantage over Mr. Aso, and receives higher marks in a variety of categories.

It is hard to put a positive spin on these results, although Mr. Aso did his best on Monday night in a live appearance on Fuji TV. He maintained that his unpopularity is a function of the economy, which implies that if he manages to fix the economy, the Aso LDP (recall that the LDP is using this phrase on its recent publicity material) will be fine. I suspect there are at least two things wrong with his response. First, if by economy he simply means the recession, Mr. Aso is overly optimistic. Clearly the LDP’s spectacular unpopularity among Japanese voters predates the recession and the global financial crisis; its causes are numerous, with the recession being the latest black mark. Accordingly, if the LDP somehow manages to revive the economy in the next nine months — a feat that at this point would be miraculous — the Aso government’s numbers will not magically elevate to new heights.

But such talk of recovery, at least before an election, is fanciful. Japan’s economy shows no signs of becoming any less dependent on the US economy, and with no signs of a US recovery in 2009, Mr. Aso will be waiting in vain. Nevertheless, he is doing all he can to appear cool, impervious to the signs of his government’s demise. (Indeed, I watched his Fuji TV appearance, which was a calculated effort to show just how calm the prime minister is. One segment showed Mr. Aso in his office, dressed casually and surrounded by piles of books — continuing to sell this image. He turned on the stereo and proceeded to belt out Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Mr. Aso may be in need of one of those. Perhaps his singing the song was a cry for help.)

Meanwhile, at the same time that Mr. Aso is facing ever greater disapproval, Watanabe Yoshimi, former administrative reform minister and prominent critic of Aso Taro, announced Monday that he will in fact by leaving the LDP on Tuesday, following through on his remarks of last week.

Mr. Watanabe told reporters Monday that before the lower house votes on the government’s second supplementary budget, he will deliver his declaration of secession to LDP headquarters. He insisted that he will begin building a popular movement outside of the LDP in the hope of attracting discontent LDP members in Nagata-cho and in local chapters. In other words, Mr. Watanabe hopes that if he builds it — it being a new reformist party — they will come.

There is reason to be skeptical that this approach will work. As Jun Okumura suggests, Ozawa Ichiro’s overt appeals for LDP defections will likely have the opposite effect, leading disgruntled LDP members to hang Mr. Watanabe out to dry so as not to give comfort to Mr. Ozawa. There remain precious few signs that Mr. Watanabe will have company in his new venture. I still give him tremendous credit for taking this step into the unknown, but thus far it is not the kind of move to shake the foundations of the Aso government any more than they have been shaken by wider events.

Indeed, in his Monday TV appearance, Mr. Aso shrugged off Mr. Watanabe’s decision as an “individual matter,” saying that he had no fear that Mr. Watanabe will be only the first of a series of defections.

Mr. Aso was similarly cool to Mr. Ozawa’s appeal for a negotiated dissolution of the lower house, in which the DPJ would trade support for the FY 2009 budget for an agreed timetable for a general election, insisting that policy remains his top priority.

Mr. Aso’s cool demeanor, however, should not distract observers from the extent of the crisis facing the prime minister and the LDP. It is too early to gauge the impact of Mr. Watanabe’s defection, but I suspect that beyond numbers (which may or may not be forthcoming) Mr. Watanabe may undermine the government by exposing the illusion of the LDP as anything but an exhausted party resistant to structural change. Despite the tendency of some intellectuals to blame Japan’s problems on Mr. Koizumi, the former prime minister’s popularity has lingered. Whatever their thoughts about his specific policies, his message of a drastic break with the LDP’s old way of conducting government undoubtedly continues to resonate. By leaving the LDP, Mr. Watanabe has made clear the extent to which Mr. Koizumi failed to change the LDP. Other reformists may remain in the party, but it is entirely possible that they will go down to defeat, while Mr. Watanabe, standing alone and for now without the prospect of a DPJ challenger, may survive to fight on after the general election.

And while Mr. Koizumi may have failed to change the LDP, it increasingly appears that he successfully delivered on his promise to destroy the LDP.

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