LDP leadership considered a poisoned chalice

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am

After suffering a humiliating defeat in Japan's general election, the Liberal Democratic Party faces its next big hurdle - choosing a leader who can rebuild the party.

However, familiar LDP names are reluctant to put themselves forward for a position considered to be a poisoned chalice.

Sadakazu Tanigaki emerged as the first contender, the former finance minister saying over the weekend he would 'sacrifice myself to revitalise the party'.

The vote for new LDP leader is scheduled to take place on September 28, with several other party heavyweights ruling themselves out.

Yoichi Masuzoe, the outgoing minister of health and welfare, has already said he is not in the running, as has Nobuteru Ishihara, party deputy secretary general. Yuriko Koike, the former defence minister, is also considered an unlikely candidate to replace Taro Aso, who steps down tomorrow.

Political analysts say the LDP is apparently waiting for someone to step in and do much of the legwork of rebuilding the party, and then consider a bid for the leadership.

'There are two ways of looking at the job,' said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. 'The first is that this is the job from hell and that whoever takes it on will be a janitor picking up the pieces.

'The other way of looking at it is to heed [former British] prime minister Harold Wilson's belief that a week is a long time in politics and a year is a very long time,' he added. 'There is a chance the Democratic Party of Japan will screw up and do badly in next year's election for the upper house of the Diet.

'If that happens, we will have a divided Diet, more political deadlock and the possibility of the DPJ breaking down. And then Tanigaki would be the hero who rebuilt the LDP.'

After such a crushing defeat in the election, many young LDP members are looking for a younger leader to revive the party, one with more charisma and personality, instead of another in the apparently unending line of grey men in grey suits.

'The younger generation of LDP politicians are feeling completely frustrated and angry,' said Professor Noriko Hama, from Kyoto's Doshisha University. 'They feel that the old, grey men have totally betrayed them and left them in this terribly difficult situation. They want to find a new direction for the party, and that means a new leader with new ideas and a new image for the party as a whole,' she said.

Tanigaki, 64, does not fit that mould, and analysts believe their wish is unlikely to be granted.

'It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks,' Dujarric said. 'The 'old guard' of the party are still in control and it is very hard to see a young standard-bearer in their ranks.'

Much faith was placed in Shinzo Abe when he was elected party leader in September 2006, at the tender age of 52, but that ended in failure less than a year later when he resigned.

Professor Pema Gyalpo, who teaches law at Yokohama University, also played down suggestions that a generational change in a party that had ruled Japan almost uninterrupted for 55 years would be a good thing.

He believes a combination of factional infighting within the new DPJ government combined with a steady hand on the LDP tiller could be enough to give the party the upper hand come next year's elections.

'It all depends on how the DPJ fares ... already I can see factionalism emerging and party leader Yukio Hatoyama trying to please everyone,' he said. 'And in the background is Ichiro Ozawa, who I fear has not learned his political lessons.'

Ozawa is a former LDP member who defected to the opposition after a row with the leadership and set himself the task of destroying the party. He has arguably achieved that - although he was himself forced to step down earlier as DPJ leader over a financial scandal - and has a reputation of a destroyer of parties instead of a consensus-builder.