Support for gaffe-prone Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso tumbled by a third to 31 percent in a survey published yesterday, as he struggled to rescue the economy from recession and keep his ruling party from unravelling.
The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose Aso in September in hopes the outspoken nationalist could win a mandate to break a stalemate that is stymieing policies and has already forced two prime ministers to quit suddenly in less than a year.
But after just over two months, Aso’s ratings are hovering near the 30 percent level seen by many as critical for survival and the potential for defections from the LDP is growing.
Aso has come under fire from the opposition and within his own party for delaying the submission of a second extra budget to fund an economic stimulus package and for a series of gaffes offending groups from doctors and parents to ailing elderly.
“Some lawmakers are thinking that they cannot win an election with the LDP, whether Aso is prime minister or someone else, so they are making moves to extend their political lives,” said Yasunori Sone, a professor at Tokyo’s Keio University. “I don’t think there will be new parties formed yet since people are not expecting an election until April or later, but there could be announcements [of new parties] about one month ahead of an election.”
No election for parliament’s powerful lower house need be held until next September and the 68-year-old Aso has said he wants to put priority on battling the worsening recession.
Just over half the respondents to the survey published in the Nikkei Shimbun said they wanted an election called by early in the New Year, rejecting Aso’s argument.
Former Japanese financial services minister Yoshimi Watanabe urged Aso last week to call a snap poll to clear the way for a “crisis management Cabinet” to cope with the recession and warned that a delay risked sparking an “explosion” in the LDP that could topple Aso and prompt the formation of a new party.
Watanabe is a member of a group of more than 20 LDP lawmakers similarly critical of Aso. Other groups are also contemplating bolting to form a new party, Sone said.
Some analysts have said the LDP might try to replace Aso ahead of an election to improve its chances of winning, but others said the lack of a viable alternative and prospects that the ruling bloc will lose meant Aso would stay on for now.
“I think nobody wants to replace him because leading the LDP into the next election means taking responsibility for a drubbing and I don’t see anyone champing at the bit to lead the LDP into a bloodbath,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.
The conservative LDP has ruled Japan for most of the 53 years since the party was formed, but was briefly ousted from power when Ichiro Ozawa, head of the main opposition Democratic Party, and other LDP lawmakers defected in 1993.
Aso, the son of a wealthy political family known for his ability to charm a crowd and a fondness for manga comics, may well have got a shock when he saw that only 17 percent rated him as suitable to be prime minister.
That was the same proportion as those opting for Ozawa, an old-fashioned politician who suffers from an autocratic image.
Another survey, by private broadcast network FNN, showed public support for Aso’s Cabinet had tumbled to 28 percent, down from 45 percent shortly after he took office.