When Tarō Aso was chosen as new prime minister and party leader after Fukuda (becoming the third prime minister in a row not actually elected by the people), my theory at the time was that the LDP would try to capitalize on his grassroots popularity and down to earth image to quickly boost the standing of LDP and call an early election. With his approval rating at a pretty good 48% it seemed possible, perhaps even feasible at the time.
Well, so much for that idea. In today's Asahi Shimbun (not online it seems) a new poll shows that the support rate for Aso is at 19%, and disapproval rating at 67%. These are lousy figures even by the standards of the LDP. Both Fukuda and his predecessor Abe resigned with poll numbers better than this. To put in perspective, Aso has managed approval numbers in only five months that not even Bush managed after eight years of incompetence and cronyism. Even worse, among LDP supporters 43% thinks he should quit, while 48% thinks he should stay on.
These numbers are interesting beyond the immediate popularity of Aso. Politicians and political parties alike have a fundamental base of support. It's the fan club, the cheerleading squad, people born into "the party", the people who will vote for them and support them no matter what the actual politics, and no matter what personal or other failings come to light. It's the people that would vote for their party if it nominated a dead sheep to party leadership; that would still vote for their candidate if he switched from the Conservative party to the Marxist-Leninists after getting caught in a hotel room with a pound of coke, two prostitutes and a pony. These people set an effective floor on any poll numbers and vote results.
For the LDP these numbers seem to say that their floor is not all that high anymore. It is no more than 19% of the electorate, and most likely lower. Remember, Aso has not (yet) done anything grossly incompetent or offensive. Sure, the economy is tanking; the social safety net is a hollow shell unable to help those at the bottom; he's forced to push an impopular and ineffective cash-handout scheme to placate his political allies; and he and his cabinet has managed to insult important constituents with clockwork-like regularity. But there's been no really serious scandal - no Watergate or Profumo affair - that would strip the party bare of all but its devoted core. So yes, these numbers can probably go lower still.
Looking forward, a general election must be held no later than September this year. Aso has to try to get his support way up into positive territory again within that time, and do so in the face of a once-in-a-generation economic recession and an opposition in control of the upper house, using a party that is now at open war with itself. Or, he could resign, give the reins to yet another unelected Prime Minister sure to tank even faster than Aso.
Things look quite good for the opposition in other words. Except that the main opposition party consists of much the same hereditary political families as the LDP - a substantial portion are ex-LDP defectors, has an impopular leader of its own and it pushes a similar center-right agenda, and so enjoy support numbers that only look good by comparison. In fact, the most popular party in most polls is not a current party, but "None of the Above".
Which sounds funny until you realize that at some point a real party may emerge to fill the shoes of "None of the Above". And as we have seen in many countries throughout recent history, there's no guarantee that it will be a moderate, secular or democratic party. There's too many examples where widespread political discontent gave power to some very scary - authoritarian, violent, racist - political movements. As much as I agree that LDP needs to just lie down, roll over and pass away already, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the lack of a moderate democratically "safe" alternative to fill the resulting power vacuum.