Taro’s red card

The Japanese leader Taro Aso, like his counterpart Gordon Brown, spent a decade coveting the premiership. Yet since achieving his ambition last September, he has led the Liberal Democratic Party - after more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted power - to unprecedented unpopularity. In the general election on 30 August, his government faces defeat by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), founded in 1998 by defectors from parties including the LDP on the right and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) on the centre left.

Despite winning a super-majority under Junichiro Koizumi in 2005, the LDP began the slide towards defeat before Aso took the reins.
A straight-talking, manga-loving populist from one of Japan's most distinguished political families, Aso was selected as leader to reconnect the party with an increasingly disenchanted public. But his inept response to the global financial crisis - he attempted to stimulate demand with a ¥12,000 (£50) handout to every citizen - quickly ended the honeymoon.

Japan's export-dominated economy has suffered badly in the crisis. In the past financial year, GDP fell by a record 3.5 per cent.
In June, unemployment reached a six-year high of 5.4 per cent. The country's public debt, the largest in the world, is forecast to reach 200 per cent of GDP in 2010, despite efforts to cut public spending.

Preoccupied with internal squabbles, the LDP has failed to address public concerns. Born of a coalition of convenience between competing conservative parties in 1955, the alliance suffers from contradictions brought into sharp relief by the end of Japan's "economic miracle" in 1991,
which caused clashes over how to restart the flagging economy. Since Koizumi's departure in 2006, policy has lapsed into paralysis.

If the LDP does lose the election, reformists are likely to abandon the party en masse to form a new one. As the politician Kono Taro says, "For many of my colleagues the LDP is the party of power. Take away that power and there is nothing else holding us together." So far, only a handful have broken with the LDP; the rest distance themselves from Aso. Like Brown, he survives because his colleagues realise that the party's problems run much deeper than its leader.

With victory in sight, the DPJ has moderated its stance on certain controversial subjects. In the past it has criticised the deployment of self-defence forces as being against the spirit of the country's pacifist constitution; but its 2009 manifesto supports the Japanese maritime force's current mission refuelling coalition ships destined for Afghanistan. This is part of a broader softening of DPJ criticism of US-Japan security agreements - a move the party's likely coalition partner, the SDP, has accepted cautiously.

However, the Japanese electorate is preoccupied with domestic concerns. The DPJ has won support through its commitments to raise the minimum wage, abolish state school fees and improve welfare. The party's failure to explain how it will pay for its long list of expensive policies does not seem to concern voters. As in Britain, anti-government feeling and a general desire for change will likely propel the opposition into office. People want a change; it seems there is nothing Taro Aso can do to prevent it.

Tina Burrett is a parliamentary adviser to the LDP's Kono Taro

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years