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And, if so, does it really matter for the reeling Japanese leader?
TOKYO — If popularity by association held any sway among voters, then Taro Aso would surely be relishing the prospect of going to the polls later this year.
On Feb. 24 the Japanese prime minister was, after all, the first foreign leader to cross the threshold of the Barack Obama White House, exactly a week after Hillary Clinton pointedly called on Tokyo first in her international debut as U.S. secretary of state.
For Aso, Obama offered soothing words about the importance of the bilateral alliance and Japan’s pivotal place in Asia-Pacific security arrangements, and how the world’s two biggest economies would emerge from the financial quagmire together, or not at all.
Yet not even the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the new U.S. president will be able to save Aso: even as leader of the Liberal Democratic party (LDP), one of the most effective electoral machines of modern times, the one-time China baiter with an addiction to manga comic books is living on borrowed time.
Last autumn when he became Japan’s fourth prime minister in three years, he was touted as the only man capable of propelling the LDP to victory in an election that must be called by the end of this September.
Six months later, as his country begins to feel the full force of the economic chill blowing in from the other side of the Pacific, evaluations of Aso’s performance range from the thoughtfully critical to the downright censorious.
Consider the verdict of Yoshimi Watanabe, himself an LDP politician until he quit the party in disgust at Aso last month. "The longer an election is postponed, the fewer seats the LDP will win," he said. "The LDP is like the Titanic approaching a huge iceberg that is the election.”
The country’s voters, the same people who have delivered the LDP into office for all but 10 months of the past 55 years, appear to agree.
Recent opinion polls put Aso’s personal approval rating at 10-14 percent, levels not seen since the nadir of Yoshiro Mori’s despised premiership in early 2001. According to the Asahi newspaper, 60 percent of voters want an immediate election.
Even the centerpiece of Aso’s economic stimulus package — a one-time handout of 120 dollars to every resident — has been rubbished by two-thirds of voters as a cynical pre-election ploy.