Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō, whose position was directly undermined by Sunday’s Tokyo assembly election results, was bitterly dismissive of the prime minister, labeling the decision as intended solely to shield Asō from criticism within the LDP, criticism that he added to by reminding reporters of the prime minister’s struggles with kanji and his indecisiveness.
But while Ishihara’s comments can be dismissed as bitterness from one unpopular leader trying to shift his share of the blame for Sunday’s defeat to another unpopular leader, Asō faced more severe criticism from within the LDP on Tuesday. The conference of LDP members of both houses of the Diet met Tuesday, giving Asō’s rivals an opportunity to criticize him to his face.
The man of the afternoon was Nakagawa Hidenao, the leader of the LDP’s reformists and who at this moment has considerable power over the LDP’s future.
Not surprisingly Nakagawa was angry about Asō’s decision to react to the Tokyo election by calling an “early” election instead resigning. He wrote at his blog on Monday that the Japanese people had already rendered their judgment on Asō’s leadership in local and prefectural elections in Shizuoka, Tokyo, Chiba, and Nara, and reiterated his argument that the only “honorable” course of action for the prime minister is resignation. In short, Nakagawa’s argument is the polar opposite of the government’s argument that local elections have no bearing whatsoever on national elections — local elections are explicitly judgments about the government.
On Tuesday Nakagawa rejected Asō’s appeal for unity and once again demanded the prime minister’s resignation, arguing that only the DPJ will benefit from an early election with Asō as the LDP leader.
Nakagawa was not alone in his criticism of Asō. Takebe Tsutomu, former LDP secretary general and Koizumi lieutenant, suggested that the prime minister acted “arbitrarily” in scheduling the election from 30 August instead of some date following the 10 September end of the Diet term.
The bitterness of the criticism from the senior reformists is an admission that they were outmaneuvered by Asō, who acted decisively for perhaps the first time since becoming prime minister, securing his position and placating his backers by scheduling an “early” dissolution followed by a long period before the election campaign officially begins on 18 August. [Readers will notice the quotes around early throughout this article, by which I am simply suggesting that early is relative: as far as I’m concerned this election should have been held months ago.] It is now highly unlikely that the LDP will oust Asō before the general election, despite Nakagawa’s calls for his resignation.
It is beginning to occur to some LDP reformists just how isolated they are within the party. Yamauchi Koichi, a first-termer from Kanagawa, writes at his blog: “In the LDP, the structural reform group, which wants to build smart government that entrusts to the private sector that which the private sector can do, demolish the administrative corporations, cut the number of bureaucrats, and eliminate government waste, has become the minority group before we were even aware of it.” (Why exactly did it take them so long to notice that they had become the LDP’s new anti-mainstream? There were plenty of warning signs well before Asō set foot in the Kantei as prime minister, although for the first year after Koizumi Nakagawa Hidenao was too busy claiming that the Abe government was reforming “faster than in Koizumi-san’s time” to notice that the LDP was reverting to form before their very eyes.)
Yamauchi’s post is interesting as it shows a Koizumi child waking up to the predicament facing the reformists: “I’m afraid to say that it appears that both the LDP and the DPJ are at the point of ‘Anti-Koizumi Structural Reform’ and their thinking is converging in a similar way(?).” What’s a reformist to do? Risk electoral defeat as a candidate for a party that has marginalized you and your peers? Join the DPJ, a party that rhetoric has it is no different from the LDP? Join with Watanabe Yoshimi in the hope that his nascent party might become the beginning of a powerful neo-liberal party?
In his futile campaign against the prime minister, Nakagawa Hidenao has been a poor leader for his fellow reformists. After all, as Nakagawa should himself recognize, the LDP’s problems are more than skin deep. Why does he think that simply changing the face of the party will be adequate to revive the LDP’s fortunes? Obviously he wants more than a change of leaders, but in the time to an election a change of leaders will be merely cosmetic and will ask voters to excuse the LDP’s past and look to a brighter future under the new leader, assuming that the new leader can make the changes desired by Nakagawa. But the Koizumi experience suggests that changing leaders only takes the LDP so far. And does anyone see another Koizumi waiting in the LDP’s wings anyway? (Yamamoto Ichita, another leading reformist, offers more criticism of Nakagawa’s position here.)
The result is that it looks like it will be every reformist for him or herself: it appears unlikely that the reformists will leave the party en masse. Some will probably leave and join with Watanabe; perhaps others will stay and fight for the soul of the LDP; still others may soften their views. But I have a hard time seeing a repeat of 1993 when Ozawa Ichiro pulled his reformist faction out of the party as a group. It is wholly unclear which option Nakagawa will choose, which speaks volumes about Nakagawa as a leader of the reformists. The longer Nakagawa waits to make his intentions clear the more it looks like the same indecision that Asō is criticized for instead of wily gamesmanship.
Nakagawa’s predicament comes through in this post at his blog Tuesday, in which he writes hysterically of his “mission to strive to the bitter end to prevent the birth of a DPJ government,” a government he believes will utterly betray Japan’s national interests. Rarely have I read something as unhinged as Nakagawa’s anti-DPJ screed. He is convinced that the DPJ will ruin Japan (presumably more than it has already been ruined by the LDP?) — if this post does not rule out the possibility of Nakagawa’s leading reformists into the DPJ, I don’t know what does. Nakagawa is equally devastated by the LDP’s failure to realize that it is imperative for to do whatever it takes to prevent the DPJ from taking power. But he offers no clue as to what he will do to “work vigorously on behalf of nation and people.”
With the LDP’s having successfully warned off reformists who might have been tempted to use the opposition’s no-confidence motion to tweak the government — the LDP informed members that the party would withdraw its endorsement if they voted for the motion — but the day of reckoning is approaching. Or, given the confusion among the reformists, the days of reckoning.