President of the Liberal Democratic Party Tanigaki Sadakazu must be feeling pretty blue these days, despite the relatively mild weather in Tokyo (mild as compared to the Japan Sea side of the nation, which has been absolutely flattened with snow this season). He has led the LDP from a nadir of around 17% popularity in the aftermath the Democratic Party of Japan victory in August 2009 to its current 17% after two-and a half years of DPJ fumbling and bumbling. He has never cultivated a particularly memorable personality: whether of that of an intellectual, of a super-nice guy or of a calming influence upon the fractious factionalism of the LDP barons -- all of which were reasons given for his appropriateness as party leader in September 2009.
In the meantime, the DPJ, whilst originally setting itself apart from recent (post-Mori Yoshiro) LDP practices in terms of foreign affairs and fiscal policies, is now plundering the LDP party manifesto for ideas, which the LDP, even though it is the main opposition party, obviously cannot oppose. When the DPJ cannot stomach the LDP's proposal, it turns to the LDP's ally the New Komeito for draft legislation, whether it is for the reduction of the remuneration of national bureaucrats or the counter-reformation at the post office (J). The DPJ's acceptation of the latter draft bill is especially ominous for the LDP and its leader, as the original reform of the post office was an LDP government crusade, admittedly under the iconoclast prime minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro. Walking back a reform that split the LDP asunder in 2005 is very difficult for the LDP to contemplate. That not backing the New Komeito bill would create a rift in between the LDP and the New Komeito makes the eventual decision on what to do all the more fraught.
Now to Tanigaki's woes are added the rise of regional parties, the most prominent of which is Hashimoto Toru's Kansai-based Ishin no kai. The emergence of these regional parties means that the LDP cannot rely on the stance of being the default anti-DPJ alternative, even in the districts, the contestible ones of which the LDP was hoping to recapture in the next House of Representatives election. The emergence of these regional parties and the low poll ratings of the LDP have undermined Tanigaki's core policy of demanding a dissolution of the Diet and elections. At worst, the LDP may not come out of an election in less dire straits than it is in now; at best it and its ally the New Komeito will not have an outright majority, requiring cohabitation either with the DPJ or the volatile regional parties.
There has even been a blowup over the LDP's latest campaign poster. The choice of a side-lit image, with most of Tanigaki's face in shadow, is unusual, to say the least (J). Major party figures, including past prime ministers, have called the image dark and depressing; many in the party have demanded the poster's withdrawal and destruction.
Tanigaki's term ends in September. He can run for reelection. However, he faces rivals already maneuvering to oppose him. Acting policy research council chairman Hayashi Yoshimasa has already established a study group, the equivalent of a candidacy exploratory committee (J). Hayashi has a handicap in that he is a member of the House of Councillors, a body from which no LDP leader has ever been elected. As the first speaker to his study group Hayashi invited a stronger candidate, the former policy research chief and agriculture minister Ishiba Shigeru (J). Ishiba has a voice that takes some getting used to, but once one has inured oneself, one clearly recognizes a formidable intellect and drive. He has had not restrained himself in criticizing both the leadership of Tanigaki and the LDP's current drift into the party of simply saying "No."
Still quiet but very much in the race to replace Tanigaki is party secretary-general Ishihara Nobuteru. Being Tanigaki's right hand man until September will make it hard for Ishihara to do anything but sotto voce campaigning for the top spot. When visiting Washington (hard on Ishiba's heals, it should be noted) Ishihara did tell audiences there, "If Tanigaki does not run again, I am am thinking of running." (J)
Tanigaki is staring at leaving a historical record of mediocrity. It will be interesting to see whether this psychological burden pushes him to greater recalcitrance or a resigned cooperative stance over these probable last few months of his presidency. Prior to his election as party president, Tanigaki had alway been portrayed as a moderate -- and he probably is one -- which would explain his ineffectiveness as a party bulldog. He may not want to act the poodle or the lapdog. However, with the DPJ insinuating itself in between the LDP and the New Komeito, he may feel he has no choice during but to do so.