Japan’s ruling party under embattled Prime Minister Taro Aso is in disarray and facing the spectre of electoral defeat after more than a half-century of almost unbroken rule, analysts say.
Aso’s approval rating has plunged below 20 per cent, much of the press has written him off, and many in his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have openly called for his scalp before elections that the premier must call by September.
As speculation mounts on when Aso will dissolve parliament and go to the polls, an expected attempt this week at a pre-election cabinet reshuffle largely fizzled, apparently sabotaged from within the party.
“We are seeing what appears to be the collapse of the LDP,” said Tomoaki Iwai, professor of public policy at Nihon University. “Individual politicians are doing whatever is good for themselves for their own survival.”
Many pundits agree that the LDP, having lost the upper house in 2007, is likely also to lose its large majority in the powerful lower house to the main opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
It is a scenario that long seemed unthinkable for the massive party machine -- with its deep ties to big business, the farm lobby and the powerful state bureaucracy -- that oversaw post-war Japan’s economic miracle.
The LDP, seemingly unbeatable in organising voter support and in pork barrel politics, has been out of power only once since 1955, when a coalition of several opposition groups took power for just 10 months in 1993-94.
“The Democratic Party of Japan is likely to win the next election, while the LDP falls,” said Sadafumi Kawato, political science professor at the University of Tokyo. “The LDP’s problem is its leadership.”
The ruling party was doing well under charismatic former premier Junichiro Koizumi but has struggled since he stepped down in 2006. It has had three prime ministers since, including Aso, who became the leader last September.
Expectations at the time were high that he would quickly call general elections, but the timing was bad as the global downturn hit and Japan spiralled into its worst recession since World War II.
Aso lost his healthy approval ratings amid a series of gaffes and policy flip-flops as many frustrated voters shifted their support to the DPJ.
A series of financial scandals have hit Japanese politics in recent months, the worst of which forced the former DPJ leader to resign -- but since then his successor Yukio Hatoyama has once more made his party the front-runner in the polls.
“If the DPJ wins, it will be the first true case of a change of government,” Kawato said.
In what many observers saw as the latest setback for Aso, he apparently backed off plans for wider cabinet changes and on Wednesday named just two new ministers while also deciding against changing the party’s top leaders.
Analysts said the premier had succumbed to an intense power struggle among ruling party factions but Aso insisted he had never planned wider changes.
Opposition leader Hatoyama scoffed: “I think the public was only reminded that the government is in a terminal state.”
The press have been almost equally damning.
The Nikkei business newspaper said in an editorial this week that the LDP’s internal crisis is so profound that it cannot even decide whether to call elections under Aso or another leader, let alone draft a campaign platform.
The top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun daily said in a recent editorial the new ministerial appointments and apparent flip-flops “revealed the prime minister’s lack of leadership and created division among the party.”
The liberal Asahi Shimbun said Aso’s troubles symbolise “the deterioration of the LDP’s ability to govern after staying in power for so long.”