One thing that can be said of politics in Japan is that it is as exciting as anywhere. If you find yourself at the same time repulsed by and pulled irresistibly toward backroom dealing, good old-fashioned political maneuvering, and the surprises that go along with them, forget Washington, where virtually every step is foretold by more pundits than anyone has ever heard of ages before it happens. Tokyo is your town.
Four days ago, when I first decided to write a profile of the candidates in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election coming up on Sunday, there were four men in the race: LDP Secretary General, until recently Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, and current Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga.
Three of them – Aso, Tanigaki, and Fukuda – ran for Prime Minister last summer, two of them – Aso and Tanigaki – stayed in the race to the end, finished a distant second and third to Shinzo Abe, who resigned on Wednesday (a move 70% of respondents to an Asahi Shimbun poll called “irresponsible.”)
Until Saturday night, despite increasing support from the all-important factions for Fukuda, I still thought Aso was going to win.
All of that has changed.
For starters, Nukaga and Tanigaki are out, both having thrown their support behind Fukuda, which makes sense, they weren’t going to come close anyway. So it’s down to Taro Aso and Yasuo Fukuda.
So who’s going to win? Well, I just don’t know. I’m flip-flopping. One minute, I think it’s Aso’s and that the press, bloggers, and others ready to call the election for Fukuda are giving in to wishful thinking. (Aso is a caustic figure, well-liked by other caustic figures, such as controversial Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has said, among other things, that, after menopause, women were nothing but a drag on society and that Tokyoites should beware of looting by Koreans in the event of a big earthquake. He is pretty much hated by everyone else.) The next minute, I think Aso’s smug sense of destiny and Fukuda’s amiability have actually combined to give Fukuda the lead.
There’s an argument to be made for each of them at the moment. Arguments that’ll make more sense with a picture of how the LDP presidential election process works, so here it is in a nutshell:
The President of the LDP is chosen by LDP members, logically enough, which means sitting LDP Diet members each get a vote and each of the 47 prefectural chapters gets three votes. Each prefectural chapter can make its own rules as to how those votes are apportioned. In some, rank-and-file party members get to vote, in others, only party chiefs, prefectural assembly members, and other bigwigs get to. In toto, there are 528 votes – 387 from Diet members and 141 from prefectural chapters.
While Aso was the presumed successor until quite recently, he is widely disliked by powerful figures in the LDP and is prone to gaffes. (Referring to a fellow Diet member, descended from members of Japan’s once-untouchable caste: “That burakumin can’t be Prime Minister,” which would be kind of like a GOP presidential candidate in the US replying, “That [N-word] can’t be President,” when asked about Barack Obama. Referring to the Korean slaves who worked for his father prior to and during World War II being forced to adopt Japanese names: “Most Koreans wanted Japanese names anyway.”)
He performed competently as Foreign Minister, but would likely be a liability in a general election. He also got ahead of himself and was seen as being downright gleeful in the wake of Prime Minister Abe’s resignation and subsequent hospitalization for gastrointestinal and stress-related mental ailments, which was unseemly for the Secretary-General of the LDP and a supposed Abe confidant. For these reasons, an “Anyone-but-Aso” camp rather quickly arose.
The “Anyone-but-Aso” camp has thrown its weight behind Yasuo Fukuda, Japan’s longest-serving Chief Cabinet Minister, under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Like Aso, Fukuda is the progeny of a political dynasty. Unlike Aso, he has developed an amiable public persona that many who know him say is genuine. While, Fukuda has appeared a bit rusty on TV, having been out of professional politics since 2004, when he resigned as Chief Cabinet Secretary, he is, by all accounts, far more likable than Aso and more likely to be able to get the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its leader, Ichiro Ozawa, on his side in trying to pass some important initiatives in the Diet, not least of which is a renewal to the anti-terrorism special measures law, which authorizes the Marine Self-Defense Force’s logistical support of US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The importance of being able to work with the opposition cannot be overstated, as, even with sizable majorities in both houses of the Diet, the Abe-led LDP was unable to achieve much. The LDP surely knows this, which may well be why eight of the nine LDP factions, which are almost analogous to political parties in other countries, have thrown their support behind Fukuda.
At the moment, Aso seems to have slightly more support in the prefectural chapters, but could be hurt by the fact that few chapters have chosen a winner-take-all system for apportioning their three votes. Fukuda has a commanding lead in the Diet. Counting votes alone, Fukuda will be the next Prime Minister, which probably means improved relations with South Korea and China and a few key challenges to the bureaucracy that actually runs Japan. However, this is politics and appearances are important. The LDP Diet members would have to think carefully before they chose a party president in contradiction to the wishes of the prefectural chapters, still reeling from July 29th’s hefty Upper House election losses, so Aso still has a chance, albeit a narrow one.
Just a few days ago, I was sure the smart money was on Aso. I have done a complete flip-flop. The race now appears to be Fukuda’s to lose.
Garrett DeOrio runs Trans-Pacific Radio, a podcast channel based in Tokyo which provides regular review and analysis of Japanese and East Asian news and politics