In the most recent set of public opinion polls, conducted over the weekend following the Ise-Shima G7 summit, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its leader Abe Shinzo had much to smile about. Most polls showed a leap in Cabinet approval ratings of about 5%, adding on to what are at historic levels of public acceptance of a Cabinet, at least for a prime minister in his fourth in office (not that there have been, historically, many of these creatures). The ruling party's dispiriting four-to-one advantage in support over its centrist rival, the Democratic Party remained unchanged or improved.
Certainly the atmospherics of President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima, which pleased an astonishing 98% of respondents in the Kyodo poll (the first time I have ever seen such a polling number anywhere outside the DPRK) have added to the luster of Prime Minister Abe and his government.
Nevertheless, the public's attitude toward the policies of the Abe administration and the LDP remains at best grudging and at worst hostile. A majority of the population does not believe the government's economic policies are a success or likely to succeed. A majority of the voters do not want the government to consider a revision of the Constitution. A majority indeed do even not want the ruling coalition to win the necessary number of seats giving it the potential to alter the Constitution.
So what is going on? Why has the opposition been unable to translate the public dissatisfaction with the current policy directions or potential policy directions of the LDP and the Cabinet into support?
A considerable amount of the blame for the Democratic Party's inability to capitalize on a favorable policy environment has to be laid at the door of party leader Okada Katsuya. He is a bland and earnest individual with poor charisma and paltry appreciation of the value of political symbols. With his wooden speeches and leaden demeanor he practically begs the news media to belittle him. That journalists are recording his words and his image not because he has anything to say but because he is the leader of the opposition bothers him not enough. If not for the sheen of the leadership post, the news media and the public would ignore him.
However, it is facile to attribute the major part of anti-LDP opposition's unpopularity to the current leader of DP. Replacing Okada with someone else (a prospect the DP faces following the drubbing they will receive in July) cannot fix the fundamental problems of the opposition, even if the opposition were to recruit a magnetar like Koizumi Shinjiro, the only current rival to Prime Minister Abe.
For a viable opposition to be both viable and an opposition it has to 1) oppose and 2) have a place upon which to make its stand.
In the current political environment, both internal and external, neither is possible.
In terms of policy stance, the LDP is incorrectly classified as a center-right party. It is in fact a center-left party or even leftist party, with a nationalist/patriotic veneer of ersatz, sheepish rightism. The LDP's current economic policies are the interventionist dreams of European and North American liberals, with not a shred left of the small-government and market-driven drives of the Hashimoto and Koizumi (pere) eras. As for security policy, Japan's politico-military establishment under Abe is as cautious and rule-bound as it has ever been, at least as compared with counterparts in other OECD countries. As for its promises of constant expansion of social spending, only the Japan Communist Party holds a candle to the LDP.
So where is Japan's so-called "liberal" opposition to stand? Yes, it can oppose last year's security legislation on procedural grounds. However, if one looks for concrete difference, one finds that when the DPJ, the precursor to today's DP, was in power, its security plans were identical to those of the current government. On the economy and social welfare, to the immediate left of the LDP is the JCP, with only a micrometer of space between them.
Rob the electorate of the illusion that a change in political parties will in and of itself better Japan, as the DPJ's turn in power did, and you have an impossibly narrow base on which to build a challenge to the current ruling coalition and its leader.
Later - For a review of the latest polling numbers, check out the most recent Sasakawa Foundation post by Tobias Harris (Link)