The LDP in ruins

On Wednesday, Nakagawa Hidenao announced that the movement to move up the LDP presidential election from September — in effect a campaign for a recall election aimed at Prime Minister Asō Tarō — reached its goal of signatures from more than one-third of LDP members in the upper and lower houses (one-third is 128 members). Among the 133 signatures received are those of two members of the Asō cabinet, Yosano Kaoru, the finance minister, and Ishiba Shigeru, the agriculture minister.

The rebels are urging the LDP executive to convene a general meeting of LDP members from both houses — and with Asō determined to dissolve the Diet Tuesday, they are running out of time.

Having one-third of the Diet caucus is sufficient to force a general meeting, but whether they will be able to secure a majority of Diet members plus the heads of the forty-seven prefectural chapters remains to be seen. But that said, this group includes more than just the Koizumi children, although they are certainly in the mix. There are enough signatories with cabinet experience and longevity that Asō and his allies cannot simply ignore them. (The complete list is available here.) There is certainly a reformist “color” to the list, but it is not necessarily a group of Nakagawa’s compatriots. I would imagine a number of the signatories are there because they simply fear for the future of the party, not because they accept Nakagawa’s ideological program. In other words, this group is not the beginning of a new reformist party.

This group, and Nakagawa in particular, is convinced that the LDP can be saved by throwing Asō overboard, indeed that the prime minister is the only thing standing in the way of LDP victory. As I argued here, I think Nakagawa’s position assigns far too much blame to Asō for what is essentially a structural problem in the LDP. After going through three prime ministers in three years, it is hard to believe that the problem is simply having the wrong people at the head of the party. After watching the LDP’s members war with one another simply to remove Asō, will the public be convinced that the LDP is a whole new party? If the party manages to unseat the prime minister and elevate, for example, Masuzoe Yoichi in his place, will the party instantly become more manageable? (Motegi Toshimitsu, a former administrative reform minister, and Sugawara Isshu, the LDP’s deputy secretary general, met with Masuzoe Wednesday evening to urge him to run in the event that Asō falls from power.) Masuzoe’s position would be particularly difficult given that he would be the first postwar prime minister from the upper house and has always prided himself on being independent from party (great as a crusading minister, bad in a party leader). He might be able to save the LDP in a general election, but when it came to governing he would presumably get ensnared by the same problems that have undermined previous LDP prime ministers.

At this juncture, however, Yosano has emerged as a key figure in determining not only whether Asō will survive, but also whether the prime minister will be able to go forward with a dissolution and general election as planned. Yomiuri reports that the finance minister met with the prime minister for forty minutes on Wednesday and urged him to resign voluntarily. Yosano also hinted that he might not sign the declaration dissolving the House of Representatives and stressed that the party leaders must listen to dissenting voices in determining how to proceed. Despite his long-running battle with Nakagawa — the war of Nakagawa’s “rising tide” school versus Yosano’s “fiscal reconstructionists” — Yosano is now a critical ally for Nakagawa inside the cabinet, seeing as how the reformists do not have one of their own in the government. But even Yosano cannot stop the dissolution, as the prime minister can dismiss him and assume his position if Yosano refuses to sign the order.

The battle is building to a climax. There will presumably be a meeting of LDP Diet members, if only to vote down the proposal. That would probably be the best outcome for Asō, given that he probably has the votes. Mori Yoshiro spoke of making a decision about a “recall” election on the basis of the opinion of all members, a reminder that two-thirds of the party’s members did not sign the petition. And Asō has the upper hand, in that he only has to hold out until Tuesday and then he can dissolve the Diet, even if he has to dismiss members of his cabinet to do so.

On Thursday, Takebe Tsutomu likened the current situation to the bakumatsu, the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1850s and 1860s. He may be right, but he should remember that it takes more than one group to produce political chaos. The Asō cabinet may be tottering and feeble, but the reaction it has engendered from within the LDP has mortally wounded the government, worsening the conditions that inspired the reaction in the first place. If the rebels fail — and it looks like they will, because Asō is nothing if not stubborn — they will have guaranteed the outcome they sought to avoid: the disastrous defeat of the LDP and the formation of a DPJ government.

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