The Second Coming of Taro Aso
by Tobias Harris
The cover of the March 12 edition of the Yukan Fuji, a Japanese tabloid, declared, "Aso's Declaration of War." An accompanying picture showed Taro Aso, former foreign minister and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) secretary-general, conferring with three former prime ministers: Yoshiro Mori, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe. Mr. Aso, in short, is conspiring to seize the LDP presidency and the premiership.
After losing his third bid for the party presidency in September 2007, it was unclear whether Mr. Aso remained a viable contender for the LDP leadership. Head of the LDP's smallest faction and viewed as a risky choice by risk-averse party elders due to his unorthodox thinking and quirky interests in manga and Japan’s otaku culture, it seemed unlikely that Mr. Aso would be able to rejuvenate his career.
Six months later, however, Mr. Aso once again looks like a contender, if not the presumptive frontrunner, to replace Mr. Fukuda, who thanks to recent struggles may not have much time left in office.
One factor in the revival of Mr. Aso's fortunes has, of course, been the decline in Mr. Fukuda's. Mr. Aso may in fact have been lucky to lose in September, as Mr. Fukuda has been left to contend with the wreckage of the Abe cabinet: a divided party uncertain about its future, a public insecure about economic wellbeing, and a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) eager to press its advantage after taking control of the House of Councillors after last summer's election. Mr. Fukuda has floundered in the face of these challenges; the LDP is, if anything, even more divided, the public even more restless, and the DPJ even more hungry for a general-election win (although the DPJ has problems of its own).
The result is that the LDP is looking for a savior, someone who will be able to unify the party as much as possible, put the DPJ on the defensive, and bolster the party's prospects in advance of a general election. Mr. Aso has been working to position himself as that savior.
In the immediate aftermath of the party election, Mr. Aso went into self-imposed exile. He withdrew from the spotlight, declined offers of ministerial portfolios, and began a tour of the country that brought him to more than 80 locations throughout Japan. In the process his emphasis changed. Best known as a foreign policy hawk, Mr. Aso began focusing on the pensions problem and the plight of economically stagnant regions of the country, issues more important to Japanese voters than the foreign policy and cultural issues prioritized by Mr. Abe during his ill-fated premiership. Mr. Aso has made this transformation known with two highly publicized articles in major monthlies (these articles directly prompted the Yukan Fuji cover story).
The first, published in the March issue of Chu-o- Ko-ron, was entitled, "This is Aso's plan to restore peace of mind! Make the consumption tax 10% and use the full amount of tax revenue as the foundation for pensions." The scope of the article, however, was broader than the title suggested. He wrote at length of the need for Japan to make tough decisions about how to tackle the problems associated with its changing economy and society and proposed a three-pillar "Japan Renewal" program that includes regional decentralization, a strengthened pensions system, and a liberalized labor market. (His second major article, in the April issue of Voice, describes his radical decentralization plan in detail.)
What’s important in these articles is not their specific proposals but their implications for the LDP's conservative ideologues. In his Chu-o- Ko-ron essay, Mr. Aso essentially owns up to Mr. Abe's failures; Mr. Abe failed because he, to borrow a term from American politics, governed from his base. He did nothing to assuage the concerns of Japanese citizens about their economic security. He did nothing to advance the project of transforming Japanese society in the 21st century. As Mr. Aso wrote:
I believe as before that the Abe cabinet's advancement of constitutional revision, education reform, and resolute foreign and defense policy―all part of the work of reimagining the state as demanded by the age―is an important pillar [of the conservative revival]. But I think that if we do not embrace the former LDP mainstream's "politics of tolerance and patience," if we do not stop growing inequality, and if we do not work cooperatively for economic policy that unifies Japanese society, we will not become a conservatism that opens the way to the future.
In short, for conservatives―for Mr. Aso―to remain a force in the LDP and in the political system as a whole, they must have the same priorities as the Japanese people. That does not mean abandoning constitution revision, cultural conservatism, and "assertive diplomacy," all of which enjoy not inconsiderable support from the public; it means shuffling the agenda to prioritize economic insecurities.
Will the conservatives, the members of the "True Conservative Policy Research Group" formed by Nakagawa Shoichi, the so-called HANA group (for Hiranuma, Aso, Nakagawa, and Abe), accept this vision and its explicit critique of Mr. Abe's government?
More importantly, will the party elders, especially Mr. Mori, accept the reinvented Mr. Aso and turn to him as a savior at the end of Mr. Fukuda's government? It is Mr. Mori, kingpin of the Machimura faction, the party's largest and home to the previous four prime ministers, who Mr. Aso must impress in the hope that the Machimura faction will throw its weight behind him in a leadership election.
For the moment, both questions remain unanswered. But what is clear is that should Mr. Fukuda fall, Mr. Aso is once again ready to lead his party―if only the party will have him.
And even then, the party may be beyond saving.
麻生・自民前幹事長：「民主は大人の対応を」 国会運営で求める ／佐賀
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