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Tanigaki: Political Martyr?

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Tokyo Notes

Tanigaki: Political Martyr?

Does Japan’s opposition party leader plan to live or die by electoral sword?

Japan’s main opposition leader has promised to quit should his party fail to stop the ruling coalition from maintaining its razor-thin majority in the upper house in next month’s poll.

While it’s refreshing to hear a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party express, with such clarity, what he must do to merit holding on to his position, the remark by Sadakazu Tanigaki on a weekend TV show sounded more like a statement of political reality than an inspiring pre-election rallying call.

While the ruling Democratic Party of Japan spent much of the last few months trying to shoot itself in the foot by dithering over the Futenma air base relocation issue, and failing to deal with politics and money scandals, Tanigaki’s LDP failed to capitalize. Instead, political infighting resulted in veterans and potential leaders leaving the party that dominated Japan’s postwar political landscape until last summer’s general election. If the party needed to reinvent itself after its devastating defeat in the election, Tanigaki has yet to show he is the man to do it.

Since Naoto Kan took over as DPJ leader and prime minister ten days ago, it seems that a generous window of opportunity for the LDP to reel in the DPJ has passed for the time being, with public support swinging back firmly in the direction of the DPJ. While opinion polls in Monday’s newspapers seemed divided over whether Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s first policy speech in the Diet on Friday had further helped the recovery of support for the DPJ, they all showed the LDP limping along with only half the DPJ’s support at best.

In his speech Kan promised to win back the people’s trust in the DPJ’s reformist agenda. He said he would cleanup the political establishment, tackle the nation’s finances and shore up social security while taking a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. His comments on economic policy took on quasi-Buddhist overtones as he spoke of taking a kind of middle path compared with the extremes of market fundamentalism on the one hand and over reliance on public works on the other.

In the weekend opinion poll results, the relatively progressive Asahi Shimbun showed support for the DPJ rising to 43 percent after Kan’s speech from 39 percent 4 days earlier, while the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun showed DPJ support dipping to 31 percent from 36 percent. That’s the kind of swing you might expect if these polls were just being conducted on their respective readerships. But joking aside, both polls were consistent in showing the current sorry state of support for the LDP: 14 percent (Asahi) and 16 percent (Yomiuri).

It’s still early days for the new Kan administration and with 30 percent or so of pollees undecided on who they will vote for, it is still far from certain what will happen in the upper house election. But at this point it looks as though Tanigaki will need a good showing from one of the LDP splinter parties to stop the DPJ bloc from holding on to its majority.

Could one of Tanigaki’s detractors such as Yoichi Masuzoe then unwittingly help him achieve his election goal? That would be truly ironic.