On the eve of destruction?

The denizens of Tokyo have started voting for representatives to the metropolitan assembly, and the LDP is already explaining away a defeat. Turnout may be up compared with 2005, which, as Jun Okumura notes, bodes ill for the LDP and Komeitō.

Appearing on TV Saturday, Hosoda Hiroyuki, the LDP secretary general, said that the election will have no impact on national affairs, the LDP’s refrain throughout the string of defeats in local and prefectural elections. Similarly, Prime Minister Asō, returning to Japan from the G-8 summit in Italy, stressed that of course he wouldn’t resign if the coalition loses its majority in the Tokyo assembly.

I do not doubt Asō’s resolution to stay. And he is far from friendless in the LDP — even Masuzoe Yoichi, dubbed his most likely challenger by the media, has backed off from open criticism, and Ishiba Shigeru, another potential challenger in his cabinet, recently voiced his support for the prime minister. Whatever unease the LDP’s chieftains feel about having Asō as the face of the party in the general election, none seems to be excited at the prospect of a party leadership election before a general election. And why should they be? Rather than enabling the LDP to rid itself of Asō, a party election at this point would serve only to air the LDP’s internal divisions even more than they are already being aired. There is some hope within the LDP that Asō will leave voluntarily, but it would strike me as uncharacteristic for the prime minister to bow out willingly.

And Asō still has his nuclear option, the power to call a general election. Yomiuri reports that the prime minister will base his decision regarding the general election on the returns in Tokyo. Regardless of whether the coalition wins or loses power in Tokyo, the election could impel Asō to call an early election. If the coalition wins, he may want to call an early election to take advantage of the temporary shift in the government’s favor. If the coalition loses, he may want to call an early election to undercut the anti-Asō movement within the LDP. The question then is how the reformists will react to having no choice but to contest the election under Asō’s leadership. Shukan Bunshun suggests that the reformists are thinking about contesting the election with their own manifesto, making them a virtual new party.

How likely is this outcome? I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.

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