Aso falls below ten percent

Author: Tobias Harris

NTV has just released a new opinion poll conducted over the weekend that shows that Aso Taro’s approval rating has fallen below 10%, clocking in at 9.7% compared with 17.4% the previous month. His disapproval rating in the same poll rose seven points to 76.2%.taro_aso3

Among the 55 respondents who said they support the Aso government, a plurality (35.7%) said they supported the government because they could not see anyone else doing the job, with another 23.2% supporting the government because they support the ruling parties.

As for those in opposition to the government, the single greatest reason was a lack of hope in the government’s policies (33.3%), followed by a lack of leadership (28.7%), and a lack of confidence in Mr. Aso’s personality (20.3%). Advocates of a cabinet reshuffle should note that only 2.1% of respondents cited the cabinet lineup as their reason for not supporting the cabinet (although obviously some might believe it to be an ancillary reason).

Meanwhile the same poll found that nearly twice as many respondents (51.9% to 26.2%) favor a DPJ-centered government after the next general election than favor an LDP-centered government, and more than twice as many respondents (40.6% to 16.3%) said Ozawa Ichiro ought to be prime minister as said Mr. Aso should be prime minister (although 43.1% of respondents didn’t know or didn’t answer the question). In the big list of potential prime ministers, Mr. Ozawa received the highest support at 15.6%, more than Koizumi Junichiro and every other politician, although once again a large number of respondents (53.3%) did not know or did not answer the question.

The point of this poll is not that Mr. Aso is challenging Mori Yoshiro for the title of least popular LDP prime minister ever. The difference between 15% approval and 9% approval seems purely symbolic, the consequence of the amputation of a digit and nothing more.

But it does confirm that the public has lost whatever confidence in the Aso government and the LDP it still had. Supporters don’t quite know why they’re supporting the government, while opponents know full well why they do. The LDP is dithering while their lives are getting worse; more than sixty percent of respondents said that their economic circumstances had gotten more or less worse since last year.

One consequence of Mr. Koizumi’s criticism of Mr. Aso is that it reinforces the image of a governing party incapable of ruling itself, let alone the country. Public discussion now concerns whether Mr. Koizumi will widen rifts within the LDP to the point of blocking the passage of the bills related to thesecond supplementary budget, rather than on the government’s efforts to overcome the economic crisis. The Aso government has forfeited all control of the public agenda. Efforts to try something different — talk, for example, of a “Green New Deal” (something the DPJ has also discussed) — gets lost in the noise generated by discord within the LDP.

That was the most incisive portion of Mr. Koizumi’s critique. Mr. Koizumi dismissed the government’s blaming its failure to move an agenda on the divided Diet — Mr. Aso repeated this complaint recently, saying that he was jealous at the speed with which the US Congress acted on the Obama administration’s stimulus plan and blaming the opposition for retarding the legislative progress — by claiming that if the two houses and two leading parties disagree, they should nevertheless be able to negotiate on a plan that meets the approval of the public (and, one could add, the government has the trump card of the supermajority if the opposition were to opt for obstructionism instead of good-faith negotiations).

I think the public is sympathetic to Mr. Koizumi’s assessment. The public sees government inaction, and the blame the government for it, not the DPJ. The DPJ may not be beloved by the Japanese public, but the public is not looking for a party to love. It is looking for a government that will be able to lead and show some creativity in policymaking. The LDP and the Aso government have demonstrated neither.

It is for this reason that talk of jettisoning Mr. Aso and trying again with yet another leader before a general election is fanciful. First, it is hard to see Mr. Aso leaving willingly. Given his ability to cocoon himself from reality, Mr. Aso may be able to hold on to power simply by denying that anything is his fault, blaming his struggles on the opposition, the “once in a century” economic crisis, the media, etc. Second, the LDP’s old guard seems reluctant to countenance replacing the prime minister before an election, given that most of the names mentioned as possible replacements are names more acceptable to the LDP’s reformists — weak in numbers — than to the party at large and the old guard. The marriage between Mr. Aso and the LDP appears truly to be until death do they part.

The question, however, is whether the prime minister will be able resist pressure to call an election following the passage of the 2009 budget. Public approval in the single digits has the paradoxical effect of raising pressure on the government to call an election while reducing further the LDP’s desire to face the public. It remains to be seen what will give way first, the irresistible force that is public opinion or the unmovable object that is Mr. Aso’s LDP.

The DPJ may not be up to the task, but the alternative of so bereft of legitimacy and authority that it seems certain that Mr. Ozawa and the Democrats will get their chance to govern.

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