A drowning man will grasp at anything, even the point of a sword.
One of the recurring themes in the reporting on the plummeting fortunes of Prime Minister Asō Tarō -- and the darkening outlook for the Liberal Democratic Party -- is LDP's lack of a suitable replacement for the PM, even as his Cabinet support numbers plunge into the abyss. Traditionally, there would be jostling of the party's big mammals, with meetings in exclusive restaurants and deal cutting with high-powered rivals. The papers would be following the daily movements and utterances of the main candidates, while granting a few, experienced dark horses their allotment of attention as well.
Despite the opportunity afforded by the Prime Minister's departure on what is sure to be described as an "ill-starred" visit to the United States, speculation about a likely replacement for Asō is being conducted in the abstract, not the concrete. There is talk about pressuring Asō to step down (Asō oroshi) , about opposing Asō (han-Asō) and about the Asō Administration's final days.
[The Mainichi Shimbun's top editorial is particularly cruel, declaring, "Just as we thought: the Aso Administration is in terminal condition" (Yahari, Asō seiken wa makkiteki da)]
However, as to the names of candidates capable of stepping in to replace Asō, they are conspicuous only in their absence.
The reason for the lack of a discusssion of alternatives is fairly clear. Last September the LDP conducted a presidential election that I derided then as "Asō, Snow White and the Three Dwarfs." It pitted the current party president against former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko and the trio of Yosano Kaoru, Ishihara Nobuteru and Ishiba Shigeru. Due to their numbers (five candidates is a heck of a lot) and lack of factional support, none of the four rivals had even the slightest chance of putting up an impressive show against the Asō juggernaut. All four furthermore had the reputation of being policy wonks (tsū) rather popular figures.
In addition to their shared weaknesses, the candidates had their individual strikes against them. Yosano is 70 years old, a small, wizened figure. Despite his sharp, determined mind, he is not likely capable of rousting an exhausted and shell-shocked electorate. Ishihara is a true retail politician, with excellent people skills. Unfortunately he neither impresses nor frightens anyone. Ishiba's mannerisms would be electoral poison, and he finished dead last in the September 2008 election, with only 4.7% (25 votes).
[After the Abe Shinzō flameout, I think the country finally has had its fill of prime ministers hailing from the Chūgoku Chihō. Ishiba is from Tottori #1, one of the most grossly overrepresented districts in the nation.]
As for Koike Yuriko, she may be well known, hard line, vital and photogenic - but she is probably one of least liked LDP politicians, at least among the LDP rank-and-file. While it is true she finished third in the voting in September, she is a watari dori, a migratory bird who has swooped from party to party to party, and then later from district to district, always moving on either in line with
a) the times (if you are being generous) or
b) opportunity (if you are the typical LDP true believer).
While the 46 votes she mustered were impressive for a first-time woman candidate, they sound pretty close to a plateau for a Koizumi Jun'ichirō lieutenant, at least in the present politico-economic climate. Koike's advocacy of a continuation of the process of structural reform is anathema to most of the party's supporters. She would have difficulty overcoming the perception that she is an urban sophisticate, a member of those metropolitan, international elites whose "globalization" has brought so much pain to the traditional LDP voter.
However, with the LDP in the process of having blown through its third straight traditional prime minister in a row, with the party's image crumbling into dust in the meantime, the party desperately needs a game changer, a person who highlights the deficiencies of Democratic Party of Japan chief Ozawa Ichirō, who bridges the rifts between the various branches of the LDP, who appeals to the party's rural, conservative base--all while presenting a brand new start.
Which is why I am placing my bet on the dark horse candidacy of Noda Seiko.
LDP poster in Tokyo's Nakano Ward
Yes, Noda is one of those expelled from the LDP by Koizumi in August 2005, readmitted in December 2006 in what was, at the time, the first deeply wounding error by Abe Shinzō. To a certain extent, her election would be a repudiation of the judgment the public rendered in 2005.
Nevertheless, Noda hits so many of the right notes. She is well-known on the national stage, popular with both urban and rural voters (as indicated by her being on the Tokyo LDP poster above, despite her home district being Gifu #1 ). She is seen as a strong figure for having stood up to Koizumi, defeating his most glamorous assassin, Satō Yukari, in the 2005 district vote. She is capable of inspiring intense loyalty, her 2005 expulsion from the party leading to a split in the Gifu LDP.
She is also seen as an extremely sympathetic figure, particularly by educated women voters (the Achilles heel of the Democratic Party of Japan) for her struggles with the country's marriage laws and own very public struggles with infertility. Fantabulist conservatives, who would normally find Noda's views on marriage anathema, would be assuaged by having one of the most regular of the August 15 Yasukuni sanpai regulars as PM.
Noda's taking over for Asō is, admittedly, a long shot...and the selection of Noda could end up being as successful a campaign ploy for the LDP as the selection of Kim Campbell was for the Progressive Party of Canada in 1993.
If the history of the last 15 years teaches us anything, it is that the LDP, when it is faced with the prospect of annihilation (which it is, with Asō at the helm) it will reach deep down and find within itself the will to do the impossible, to change the lay of the battlefield so that divisions become unrecognizable, to grasp the point of the sword, in the hopes of living on to fight another day.