Defection suggests shift in Japan's political landscape
By Norimitsu Onishi
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
TOKYO: Is this the beginning of the end for Japan's long-governing Liberal Democratic Party?
A lawmaker championing government reform quit the party on Tuesday, saying that the administration of Prime Minister Taro Aso was not committed to change and had lost the people's trust.
The high-profile resignation came as Aso's approval ratings have continued to fall and his party's chances of losing an upcoming election have risen sharply. Analysts say it may embolden other lawmakers, who have signaled similar intentions, to act.
"Unfortunately, Aso's Liberal Democratic Party has practiced politics completely disconnected from the people," said Yoshimi Watanabe, 56, who served as minister of administrative reform in two previous administrations and had become one of the most recognizable faces pressing for change in the government bureaucracy.
Opinion polls conducted by major Japanese newspapers and published this week showed Aso's approval ratings slipping below 20 percent, a danger sign in a country where ratings below 30 percent have led to the downfall of past administrations.
Dissatisfaction with Aso's governance was underscored by voters' strong rejection of free money. Polls showed that Aso's plan to jump-start the economy through cash handouts of at least ¥12,000, or $130, per person was seen as a cynical attempt to woo voters.
Aso, who must call a general election by September, rejected pressure from Watanabe and the political opposition to do so immediately. He said he would not consider dissolving Parliament's lower house and calling an election until the national budget is passed in April.
Aso appeared to be counting on a bounce in the polls from the cash handouts. But more than 70 percent of voters opposed the handouts, saying they would do nothing to stimulate the overall economy, according to polls.
"Voters have already given up on him and on the party," said Naoto Nonaka, a professor of politics at Gakushuin University here.
Members of Aso's own party - who chose him in September in the hopes of riding his coattails at the voting booth - appeared increasingly to be counting him out as well. Worried about their own survival, they could follow Watanabe out of the party after the budget is passed in April to run for re-election as independents.
"Mr. Watanabe is playing a political game and jumping around to draw attention, but many around him are thinking the same thing," said Nonaka, whose recent book is titled "The End of Liberal Democratic Party Politics."
"I expect we'll see even bigger developments in April or May," he added.
Defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has led Japan since 1955 for all but 11 months in the early 1990s, could lead to a long-expected realignment in Japan's political landscape. Senior members of the party have already publicly put out feelers to the main opposition Democratic Party.
Smaller opposition parties - including the People's New Party, which was formed in 2005 by former members of the Liberal Democratic Party - have already started positioning themselves.
"Because the Democratic Party is the main opposition party, the Democratic Party will inevitably be at the center of a new administration," Hisaoki Kamei, secretary general of the People's New Party, said in an interview.
He said that his small party was prepared to back the Democratic Party as long as it offered a clear vision, adding, "To help build this vision, we intend to say what needs to be said."
If the Liberal Democratic Party rebuilt postwar Japan into the world's second-biggest economy, it has struggled to redefine its goals since the bursting of Japan's so-called bubble economy in the late 1980s. Since then Japan has gone through a series of ineffective leaders, with the exception of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who, tellingly, became popular by pledging to destroy his own party.
In keeping with Koizumi's drive to reshape the party and government, Watanabe focused on weakening one of the central facets of Japan's postwar political system: the elite bureaucracy's practice of rewarding itself with plush jobs. Watanabe, who said he would remain an independent lawmaker for now, said he wanted to create a "public movement" by leaving the party first.
But some members of the governing party said Watanabe had quit not over principles, but because of self-interest.
"It's ridiculous," said Kazuyoshi Kaneko, the minister of transport. "He's quitting because he thinks the Liberal Democratic Party will lose the next election."
In a television interview before Watanabe officially tendered his resignation, Aso said he was confident that no other party members would follow suit.
"I don't understand what he will do after leaving the Liberal Democratic Party," Aso said.
The newspaper polls released this week showed that Aso was less popular and considered less trustworthy than Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party.http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/01/13/asia/japan.php