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Cracks Form in Japan’s Ruling Party

Posted by: Kenji Hall on February 12, 2009

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is at war with itself after ex-prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, gave premier, Taro Aso, a dressing-down yesterday for talking critically about the privatized postal system, a legacy of Koizumi’s. The tongue-lashing has embarrassed Aso and sparked an ill-timed power struggle within the LDP.

Observers say a drawn-out fight could leave the ruling party divided and disorganized, helping the opposition gain power for the first time since 1993.

Koizumi, who has said he won’t run for re-election to the powerful Lower House of the Diet (parliament), remains one of the LDP’s most popular politicians. Since his second term as prime minister ended in 2006, the LDP has fielded three successors. None of them earned the public’s backing as Koizumi had—and Aso ranks among the voters’ least favorite. Recent polls show Aso’s public-approval ratings below 20%.

Harsh words from Koizumi are bound to make news despite—or perhaps because of—his imminent exit from politics. And Koizumi didn’t pull his punches, after Aso clearly said that, as a minister in Koizumi’s government, he had been against postal privatization. “I’m not angry as much as I am exasperated [by Aso’s remarks],” he told a pro-deregulation group of politicians during a meeting yesterday. “It makes me want to laugh.”

It’s rare in Japan for a former premier to so openly eviscerate the country’s leader. Last night, chauffer-driven black sedans shuttled LDP politicians between dinner meetings at exclusive ryotei restaurants in Tokyo, where they debated behind closed doors how to save the party from a damaging split. The timing of the brouhaha could hurt the LDP because the party has to call a Lower House election by September (most observers expect it sooner) and the opposition Democrats, who control the Upper House, have gained a lead in the polls.

There’s no question that Aso stands to lose loads of political capital. If he calls an election now, his party could be ousted and the debacle would be on his head. But Aso’s fall from grace was self-engineered and began long before the standoff with Koizumi. His gaffes in recent months have drawn scorn from voters: He railed against doctors for lacking common sense and the elderly for being feeble. Aso’s remarks that the government should reconsider postal privatization are apparently what provoked Koizumi. Koizumi’s push for the LDP to meet with opposition parties about supplementary budget aimed at repairing the economy also dealt a setback to the Aso administration’s hopes of getting quick approval for the outlays.

There is one sector that might be rooting for Aso to stay: Publishers. They have churned out a slew of books on Aso-isms (One title: “Misread Japanese Words That You Think You Can Read But Can’t”) that have topped the bestseller lists in recent months.

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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