Aso has dragons to slay

Japan’s new PM Taro Aso has little more than personal charisma to carry out his main task of leading the venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into an election that will sorely test the conservative party’s 50-year grip on power. “It now appears certain that Aso will immediately dissolve the Diet (Parliament) and call for general elections,” Prof. Tomohiko Taniguchi at the Keio University said. “Poll after poll shows he’s been the most popular LDP politician. You could say that he bears the responsibility of using that popularity to get maximum support from the voters.”

Aso’s selection as PM was assured after the lower house voted in his favour on Wednesday. The upper house, meanwhile, voted for Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as PM,

but these votes will be

overridden by the more powerful lower house. An outspoken conservative, Aso does not hide his distaste for communism and supports a firm US-Japan alliance. But what distinguishes him from other ‘hawks’ in the LDP is his pragmatic approach and his disarming smile.

Before he calls elections, Aso must overcome the legacy of being Japan’s third PM in two years. Frustrated by the DPJ blocking key legislation, including an anti-terrorism bill, his predecessors Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe simply threw

in the towel. “Fukuda chose to step down, fully aware that he could not carry the general election due to his declining popularity and job approval rating,” Taniguchi said. “In order for the LDP to remain in power, someone more popular in the eyes of the public needs to lead the party and face off the challenges from the opposition DPJ.”

There is, according to surveys, a fair chance that the LDP, even under Aso, could get defeated by the DPJ. Under Ozawa the DPJ led the opposition to victory in the upper house, last year, when the government became embroiled in a scandal over mismanaged pension records. “We must fight against the DPJ in the next general election,” Aso had told reporters immediately after his landslide victory

in elections for the LDP presidency. “It is by winning that battle that I can fulfill my task.”

Aso needs to not only

win but also to bag enough seats in order to be able to override legislative vetoes by the DPJ and avoid the gridlock that so plagued

his predecessors.

Aso must also continue the work of mending relations with China, soured during the tenure of Junichiro Koizumi. This is not helped by the fact that he is on the record as having described Japan’s giant neighbour as a “major threat”.

Just where Aso stands on foreign policy can be gauged from a suggestion he made two years ago

that it was time Japan began a debate on whether or

not to acquire nuclear weapons. But the new PM’s most daunting challenge will be to revive Japan’s flagging economy and address the effects of the global financial turmoil.

Some attribute the worsening situation in the agro-centric rural areas to reforms under Koizumi, especially the draconian cutting of large-scale public works projects which had created job opportunities.

“The crux of the problem lies in the fact that you now have a declining input into the economy, as you have a declining population, and the growth in productivity has not caught up,” Taniguchi said. — IPS