Tuesday, March 13, 2018

What Will Happen to Aso, Abe as the Result of the Latest Twists in the Morimoto Case?

Memo, whacked out early evening on March 11 (Sun) in response to query from journalist. I wonder how much of this will hold up.

So, this Moritomo scandal. Where is it going. Aso likely to be toppled? What would that mean for the administration and Abe’s re-election hopes? Could this spell the end for the Teflon PM?

Things look grim for Finance Minister Aso. More likely than not, he will resign, in which case some time will be gained to push the Abe administration’s legislative agenda (though the key work-rule amendment will be pushed back anyway). Beyond this Diet session, the most important political consequences will be that first, Shinzo Abe will be unlikely to win a third term as LDP president and remain prime minister. Second, the headwind against Abe’s bid for constitutional amendment becomes stronger. Perceived as a lame duck prime minister, I doubt that he will be able to bring it to a national referendum. Let’s fill in some details.
Mr. Aso’s comments on Friday were crafted to deny responsibility for the promotion of Mr. Sagawa, who had been the head of the bureau in charge of the initial lease and sale of the land in question, to the Director-General post at the National Tax Agency. This was necessary because anything less would have immediately created irresistible pressure to resign himself. Aso had almost certainly been unaware of the doctoring of the document—in fact, I suspect that he was only casually aware of the case until it surfaced in the media—but a Japanese leader is expected to fall on his/her sword if the occasion warrants. And I think that it does in this case, where there is a very good chance that someone in the bureaucracy will be subject to criminal charges for an action that will be hard to explain away as being nothing other than politically motivated.
But Aso’s resistance goes beyond his personal interests. For if he resigns, the Abe cabinet itself will be in danger, together with much of the momentum for its policy agenda. Unlike the other ministers that resigned from the second Abe administration, Aso is a political whale, the head of a major faction, a former prime minister! given the extralegal title of deputy prime mister, and holding down the still most-important Finance Ministry portfolio  since the beginning of Abe’s return to power. Political whales are no longer what they used to be, but his resignation would be a much greater damage than that of the relatively junior cabinet ministers that we have seen.
Moreover, Abe and his wife were personally involved in the project that created that entire controversy that wound up spawning the doctored document. The degree of their involvement is open to question, but the other cases merely cast doubt on his judgment of character and capability. This case had already implied the abuse of political power, of favoritism and kowtowing. Now, the stench of fraud and criminality is threatening the corridors of power. Pretty tame by current Brazilian or even White House standards, but with a suicide adding spice to the story, the buck is unlikely to stop at MOF and the MOF minister.
I do not believe that Abe will resign. He is a stubborn man. He has a way of standing firmly behind causes that appear to most disinterested observers as hopeless let alone his own political fate. And I do not think that the rest of the LDP is sufficiently independent to make an overt move to push him out. He should be able to serve out his second term.
But he no longer looks like someone that current LDP Diet members, particularly those in their first or second terms and those who squeak through by the regional proportional safety-net as well as prospective candidates will be inclined to fight elections under, even if the opposition remains divided. Thus, I do not think that he will have the votes to prevail in a 2020 LDP leadership election, and I think that this will become more obvious as the event draws near. As a virtual lame-duck prime minister, he will lose so much of his political capital that he will have extreme difficulty in bring constitutional amendment to a vote in the Diet, let alone the national plebiscite. If he even enters into that state of mind, the end of the Abe administration should come more quickly, possibly even before the next Upper House election in 2019.