Monday, January 12, 2009

Aso Polling Badly

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.


  1. I fear you are on to something there. But couldn't the DPJ just possibly save the day simply by not being the LDP? They could hold the fort until the LDP sorted themselves out (not that that would be a good thing, but better than a rightist movement).

  2. You're certainly right. I'm not one of those counting out LDP forever. They have a very strong brand, a large and well-tested organization and a huge amount of resources. No matter what happens, LDP is not going to just vanish in a puff of smoke. Likewise, if DPJ win they're not going to sink into civil war with each other immediately or anything. And normally, a few years in the political wilderness tends to do wonders for a party that's grown complacent.

    But LDP is not merely complacent and fat. It's a whole political ecosystem more than a unified party, and what we might see - what we are already seeing - is a fight for the ideological control of the party.

    And unfortunately, one clear possibility is that this internal fight is won by exactly the kind of authoritatian right-wing easy-solutions-to-hard-problems movement that worries me. It'd be just like a populist movement, except with the brand awareness and resources of the largest party in the country. LDP "sorting themselves out" might in fact be the single worst possible outcome.

  3. Could another scenario be the rise of the radical left? The left would have no problems espousing an alternative to the apparently failed policies of the privatisation crowd. I don't know enough about the LDP to say whether such a hypothesis is even viable, I'm just clutching at straws rather than admit that the extreme right's day could be coming.

  4. Hmm, is that possible? Not from within LDP I would guess, since they have no left wing to battle for the party, and the vaguely liberal wing they do have are the ones ready to give up and bolt the party.

    A resurgence of the real left? Possible. Though the Japanese left seems pretty static - marginalized but stable, and seemingly content to stay that way. Of course, nothing says that a viable LDP will be forthcoming, and if they and the DPJ both self-destruct a left-wing coalition could perhaps happen. Doesn't sound likely, to be honest.

    We have no idea what will happen. In most parliamentary democracies parties change their stance and policies over time, in reaction to the world and to the political landscape. Here is mostly hasn't happened - LDP has just absorbed more and more different political streams as they have appeared, and hammered out some kind of policy compromise in return for a seat at the table. Now we might be about to see forty or fifty years of political realignment happen within a year or two. No telling what might happen.

    Of course, if the extreme right would carry the day both within the LDP and then among the electorate (and I do not find it probable) I would soon be observing events from a different continent. I'd not wait around for "regrettable incidents" with foreigner victims a'la Russia before I head for the horizon. Once again, I don't find it probable, but the possibility has me worrying just a little bit.

  5. Oh dear, and I was just starting to relax here. Where could Our Man find refuge? In bankrupt America, Big Brother Britain or freedom loving China? Yikes.

  6. Sweden is nice, if a little cold this time of year. ^_^

  7. Don't think I could handle all the singing you have to do between rounds of beer... actually, maybe I could. Nice post by the way. Must get some beauty sleep now.

  8. Interesting post, never had the chance to understand politics in Japan, your post gave me a little insight. I heard Taro Aso doesn't even know kanji. I mean comon, for a prime minister? That's just really bad.

    Hopefully someone young and good will come like Obama for America, that pulls this country up its feet, because at this moment, we really really really need it.

  9. Well, it's not as bad as all that. Apparently he did not remember how to write a few somewhat unusual characters. Not a rousing testament to his intellectual background perhaps, but he shares this problem with a lot of Japanese. People can read them just fine, and write on a computer, but they tend to forget how to write unusual characters by hand since they so seldom do nowadays.

    And I'm not sure I'd be wholly supportive of a youthful, charismatic game-changer. As I pointed out above, there's no guarantee such a person would necessarily be at the head of a moderate, liberal, democratic movement. A fair number of such people throughout history have been anything but.


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