Aso will win Japan’s premiership

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is now reaping the consequence of deciding to re-install Ichiro Ozawa unopposed as party president this month. No less than the party’s secretary-general, Yuko Hatoyama, is publicly worrying about the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election’s monopoly on media coverage.

But you can’t blame the media. And the public. The DPJ has decided to junk real selection process in favor of convenience (it knows that Ozawa, whom the party begged to stay when he resigned last year, is the only one among its ranks cunning enough to lead the party to an electoral victory). The LDP, on the other hand, is seeing a multitude of faces, most of them young and popular, vying for the party’s– and the country’s– top position. It is easy to say which party’s presidential election is exciting and which is boring.

Just yesterday, two more politicians entered the race for the LDP presidency: Kaouru Yosano and Nobuteru Ishihara. They joined the two earlier favorites: Yuriko Koike and Taro Aso.

Yosano, a 71 year old former minister for economic and fiscal policies, can probably claim to be the best candidate to tackle Japan’s economic problems. Make no mistake about the status-quo of Japanese poitics. The public are concerned on bread and butter issues, not nationalism or raising Japan’s overseas profile. And Yosano seems to know economics well enough.

One problem with him though is that he’s a strong advocate of a consumption tax increase to re-construct Japan’s debt-ridden fiscal structure, a policy that is exremely unpopular. Another problem is that his experience in economics doesn’t translate to experience with campaigning. Who could forget that episode when, as a member of the Cabinet no less, he lost his parliamentary seat in a local elections? That will surely figure in when the campaign goes to the question of which candidate can face the Ozawa threat in an election.

Ishihara, on the other hand, is a young member of the Lower House whose father, Shintaro Ishihara, is the ultra-conservative right-wing governor of Tokyo. We do not know if his relationship with Governor Shintaro would get him the support of the young conservatives (who are currently supporting Aso) and make him lose the support of reformists and liberals. It’s probably the other way around. This is because albeit his being the son of Shintaro, he is a member of a faction known for its support of relatively liberal policies (like strenghtening China relations and being a bit soft on North Korea, for instance).

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s first national security adviser (the post was created only a couple of years ago, during Shinzo Abe’s watch) and first woman minister of defense, is said to be the favorite of the party’s young reformers. She is a former TV news anchor and is pretty well-known nationally. Fluent in both English and Arabic, her expertise is national security and matters concerning the Middle East.

Koike is seen as the leading alternative candidate to Taro Aso, who is the presumed front-runner. The fact that she enjoys the support of Koizumi and his minion is said to be an asset.

However, I’m not sure if Koizumi still enjoys enough machinery within the very party many people say he actually wrecked. One can even say that Koizumi, after the Post Office brouhaha, is actually a bit isolated now within the LDP. For her part, Koike is a turncoat. She’s been in the Nippon New Party and the New Frontier Party (headed then by no less than Ozawa) before she came to Jiminto. This means that she doesn’t have a substantial support base within the LDP. Notice that she has not even held any major party post.

And this lack of support within the LDP can even be excacerbated by the fact that, as I have mentioned in a past post, she figured prominently in the Koizumi-led bi-partisan study group that allegedly eyes bolting from the LDP and creating a third party.

In fact, one can even wonder if former prime minister and LDP kingmaker Yoshiro Mori was not exaggerating after all when he said, prior to Fukuda’s resignation, that Koike’s candidacy is a joke.

It should be noted that Mori was instrumental in Aso’s upset defeat to Fukuda in the race to succeed Abe last year. And he is now supporting Aso, apparently conceding that, indeed, only a charismatic leader can lead the party to an electoral win over the growing DPJ.

Of course, like Aso, Koike, a former TV celebrity, has the charisma too. With the Palin and Clinton wave sweeping the States, we can say that Japan, who is in need of a popular leader, can be swept too by this feminist political trend. But unlike Aso, who has spent the past months touring the country and preparing for this election, Koike needs to start from the scratch. Hers would be an uphill struggle. And she knows it.

That said, it is safe to assume that Taro Aso will win this race.

Aso, a former foreign minister who was appointed by Fukuda as party secretary-general a few weeks before he stepped down, has made a strong showing in last year’s elections. Although virtually all LDP factions backed Fukuda then, Aso gained an impressive number of Diet and local chapter votes, which can only be construed that factions no longer matter much in party elections as their members vote independently regardless of who their faction leaders support.

Abe’s conservative study group is strongly supporting Aso. So is Mori and many of the LDP factions. According to some surveys, twenty-two of the forty-seven prefectural chapters are moving for him. This is because, unlike Koike who is a reformist, Aso has adopted a more populist tone (like advocating more government spending instead of belt-tightening to stimulate the economy), which has attracted many in the LDP’s rural support base.

Perhaps the only thing that could blow Aso’s momentum now is another stupid gaffe, to which he is prone.

For instance, as economics minister in 2001, he said that he wanted to make Japan a country where rich Jews would like to live. As foreign minister, he referred to a Japanese peace initiative on the Middle East, stating, “The Japanese were trusted because they had never been involved in exploitation there, or been involved in fights or fired machine guns. Japan is doing what the Americans can’t do. It would probably be no good to have blue eyes and blond hair. Luckily, we Japanese have yellow faces” He also once referred to Taiwan as a “state” and stated that the compulsory education implemented by Japanese colonizers in Taiwan was a god thing.

These controversial statements have earned Aso heavy criticisms from the media. But one can easily say that they have, in fact, endeared Aso even more to the people who have come to see him as a no-holds-barred kind of man who’s no different from average joes. Kind of like Japan’s version of straight talk express. At least that’s how I see it.

But perhaps the greatest asset Taro Aso has is his popularity among the youth, which is brought about by his constant visits to Akihabara and his confession of being a “nerd” and a manga fan. Notice the group of people in his campaign rallies during last year’s elections? They indicate a Koizumi-like charisma that can mobilize a new support-base for the LDP.

And no matter how well-versed on issues the electorate is, it can still be swayed by raw charisma. Indeed, an Asahi survey shows 30 per cent of the respondents supporting an Aso premiership, a big chunk compared to opposition leader Ozawa’s support rating of 8 per cent.

As I have said in my previous post, Aso’s popularity makes sense of Fukuda’s resignation. At least for the LDP.

In his meeting with LDP officials and members last Thursday, Fukuda said: “The LDP is full of talented people and is a reform-minded party that holds free and vigorous policy debates and makes bold changes in policies. The presidential election is about to begin and I am hoping that it will excite the public and that you will show everyone the LDP is full of energy.”

Aso’s popularity and the political drama of the LDP presidential elections. Now these should really make Hatoyama, Ozawa and the rest of the DPJ worried.

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