Time for a mercy killing

After a brief period of buoyancy, the bottom has finally fallen out of the Asō government.

In addition to the drops below twenty percent approval in the Mainichi and Kyodo polls, the government’s approval rating dropped 8.7% to 17.5% in the Sankei poll, with its disapproval rating rising ten points to 70.6%, a poll in which respondents favored the DPJ over the LDP by nearly twenty points and in which nearly fifty percent of respondents said they would vote for the DPJ in proportional representation voting in the forthcoming general election.

As has often been the case in recent years, poor public opinion polls tend to trigger (or exacerbate) snowball effects within the LDP. Party elders like Mori Yoshirō go public with their concerns about the viability of the government and begin talking about ways to fix the government, usually by discussing a cabinet reshuffle. Accordingly, Machimura faction leaders, including Mori, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka met Tuesday evening to “exchange opinions” on a cabinet reshuffle, a reshuffle that if it were to occur would surely rank as one of the most meaningless cabinet reshuffles ever. It is unclear to me that reshuffles are an effective way to reverse a decline in support for a government, especially for recent LDP governments. After all, the public’s problems with recent governments have had little to do with the cabinet lineups. Rather, the LDP has so few tools at its disposal to deal with public disapproval that LDP members look to the cabinet reshuffle out of a desire to “do something” about public discontent. To his credit, Prime Minister Asō has given no sign that he is considering a reshuffle.

Meanwhile, party reformists and wakate giin rusih to distance themselves from the unpopular prime minister, while intensifying calls for accelerating the party’s presidential election scheduled for September so that dissatisfied LDP members could replace Asō Tarō with someone better able to lead the party in a general election. Of course, it is not entirely who could save the LDP at this point — or who wants a chance to save the LDP at this point. Hosoda Hiroyuki, the LDP secretary-general, has dismissed the idea of moving up the party election, but the prime minister’s opponents continue to scheme for a way to dump Asō. The latest idea is to tie the prime minister’s future to the LDP’s performance in next month’s Tokyo assembly election. An unnamed member of the LDP executive has stated that if the LDP does not remain the assembly’s largest party, Asō should step down. Hosoda has also rejected this idea, but there is little question that the 12 July Tokyo election is taking on considerable importance for both the LDP and Komeitō as a test of the coalition’s ability to win urban electoral districts that were critical to its 2005 landslide, especially following the LDP’s losing streak in recent municipal elections.

Interestingly, Koga Makoto suggested this week that he supports a July 12 general election, which I suppose would be one way to avoid the turmoil that would follow a disastrous performance in the Tokyo elections. Komeitō is of course opposed to this idea, but this is a good reminder that Asō still has the trump card in the battle with his own party, the prime minister’s right to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Kato Koichi said Tuesday that an early election would be suicidal, but at this point I have to wonder whether it wouldn’t be a mercy killing. While the Asō government claims to have important business to attend to, at this point nothing is more important than holding an election, which will hopefully result in a government with greater legitimacy and a greater ability to act on policy than the current coalition government. And while Kato says an early election would be suicide, it is unlikely that an election at term’s end will be any less fatal to the Asō government and the LDP-Komeitō coalition government more generally. The interesting question now is whether the general election will be fatal to the LDP itself.

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