Aso limps on

The Aso government won a small victory on Friday when the lower house passed the 2009 budget, ensuring that even if the upper house does not act on it the budget will pass into law before the start of the new fiscal year.

The discussion will now unavoidably shift to the timing of the general election. Aso Taro will try to shift the discussion to a new economic stimulus package, but I wonder whether the LDP has the energy left to pass yet another round of economic stimulus. Yamaoka Kenji, the head of the DPJ’s parliamentary affairs committee, saw the link between further economic stimulus and the government’s desire to prolong its life, and not surprisingly rejected it. The DPJ has a point. Why should a government on its last legs be given license to spend even more public money in a desperate bid to stave off an economic crisis and electoral defeat? At this point, will it make much difference in overcoming the crisis if the political system takes one month off to contest an election?

Nevertheless, the LDP looks determined to press forward with a supplemental budget before calling an election. In a TV appearance over the weekend, Koga Makoto, the LDP’s chief election strategist, indicated that it is the government’s responsibility to formulate another stimulus package before going to the voters. If the debate over the supplemental budget drags on, however, the LDP may find it convenient to delay longer, enabling Aso to attend the July G8 meeting in Italy (although after Nakagawa Shoichi’s performance last month perhaps Japanese officials should stay away from Italy for a while). In other words, Koga’s statement looked like an acknowledgment that the election might be held earlier than the end of the term in September, but circumstances might guarantee that government holds off until then.

Not everyone is pleased with the prospect of waiting too long. Ishiba Shigeru, MAFF minister and possible Aso successor, said Saturday that the government should go to the people sooner rather than later, that it is not wise to wait until September. That being said, Ishiba still stands behind Aso as the man to lead the LDP into the election.

And so, it seems, does much of the LDP’s leadership. The party’s young turks remain discontent — a new group called the “association to reform the LDP and regenerate Japan,” including a number of members of the anti-Aso group formed last year by Shiozaki Yasuhisa, recently formed in the hope of finding a post-Aso party leader, but has called itself not anti-Aso but non-Aso. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, but the fact that the group’s leaders felt the need to stress that they are not anti-Aso is telling. The LDP leadership has unified around the besieged Aso, not out of love for Aso but because the party has little alternative. As dismal as the party’s prospects are with Aso at the helm — Koga revealed that the party hopes to take 230 seats in the general election, which would mean a loss of seventy-three seats and leave the LDP short of an absolute majority — it is hard to see how matters will improve without Aso. The very process of removing him could guarantee the party’s defeat. Without an obvious successor, the fight to replace Aso could be bitter and brand the LDP as completely irresponsible for focusing more on party infighting than policy in a time of crisis. And that’s assuming that Aso could somehow be convinced to step down without a fight or without calling a general election against the party’s wishes.

As a result, senior LDP officials have been lashing out at those who have talked of taking down the prime minister. Sasagawa Takashi, the head of the LDP’s executive council, simply dismissed the idea that Aso would resign. Sonoda Hiroyuki, the deputy head of the Policy Affairs Research Council, said it is shameful that people like Takebe Tsutomu, a former LDP secretary-general, would call for the prime minister’s resignation in the midst of a crisis. Suga Yoshihide, one of Aso’s conservative allies, added that it was “truly regrettable and shameful” that someone who had served as secretary-general would call for a new leader.

Aso has also received a vote of confidence from Komeito’s leadership, which is only fair given the extent to which Aso has bowed to his coalition partner’s wishes. Ota Akihiro insisted that now is a time for focusing on economic policy, instead of political positioning.

The Aso government is therefore in an unusual position. It is limping along, its popularity teetering on the ten-percent threshhold, but it cannot be removed, not without a display of uncommon courage on the part of the prime minister’s critics within the LDP who thus far have failed to match words with action.

It seems impossible, but Aso may be able to hold out until September.

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