Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A few good henjin

Shisaku replies to my Monday post on the DPJ, arguing, "...the alternative to Diet theatrics--conducting face-to-face retail politics--may fail to ignite excitement at the ballot box."

His point is well taken — and his analysis of voting behavior is quite sound; I did not mean to imply that the DPJ should shun the Diet entirely. However, there are limits to what the DPJ can hope to get out of making a vocal showing in the Diet, considering that doing so tends to make the DPJ look amateurish and not quite ready for government.

The fact is that the DPJ is a smaller, younger version of the LDP. A life raft for castaways from the LDP, as well as the JSP and smaller parties that were consumed by the churning maelstrom of Japanese politics in the 1990s, it shares the same fundamental quality as the LDP: it is an "every member for himself" party, with a lack of policy cohesion that would be unacceptable in just about every other mature democracy. (Both the LDP and the DPJ make the US Republican and Democratic Parties look dictatorial by comparison.)

While I appreciate the desire, voiced by Ozawa and others, to create a two-party system with each party having clear and coherent policy positions, I wonder if that outcome is possible as long as the LDP remains characterized by its utter lack of principle save that of holding power. To win, does the DPJ have any alternative to playing the same kind of politics as the LDP, building up strong local organizations to back its candidates and indulging in the same sort of give-and-take used by the LDP to develop its local bases?

Of course, doing so means shelving any hope of serious political reform in the near term — and it may also mean foregoing any hope of forming a government, because why would voters back the shadow of the LDP when they can have the real thing (and the benefits its candidates promise to deliver to supporters).

But getting back to the question of what the DPJ can hope to accomplish in Diet deliberations, especially in the face of the enormous LDP majority in the Lower House, it seems that although British parties and Japanese parties are rather different, especially in terms of party discipline, the DPJ is very much like Britain's Conservative Party. Indeed, the electoral plight of the Conservatives and Japan's Democrats derive from a similar source.

With Tony Blair, his New Labour backed by equally large majorities, at least in the first half of his government, governing from the center (or even the center-right), the Conservative Party has been about as effective an opposition party as the DPJ; that is to say, wholly ineffective. Its best ideas had been co-opted, and it compounded its problems by turning to ineffectual leader after ineffectual leader.

Similarly, the DPJ had its thunder stolen by the widely popular reformist Koizumi Junichiro, and was unable to rediscover its voice, even as Koizumi's reformist program stalled and his popularity dropped. Turning to the canny veteran Ozawa in the aftermath of Maehara Seiji's disastrous leadership of the party seemed like a good move, but despite Ozawa's policy bona fides, he has had no more success against an LDP promising (if not delivering) reform than his hapless predecessors.

Maybe it's time for the DPJ to move past the Kan-Ozawa-Hatoyama troika and find a party leader who can combine rock star appeal with a clearly communicated, coherent policy message (that actually has substance behind the slogans).

Alas, good henjin are hard to find.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Since you are a Diet insider I would like to ask you a question related to the lack of coherence of the DPJ.
Basically it seems to me the representatives are like a bunch of stray cats sitting around in a dark alley. When a choice piece of tasty garbage is put out it is every cat for him/herself. So we have the scrawny, mangy, flea bitten, noisy DPJ stray cats held together by what? How much money do they get to actually agree to stay in the DPJ? To what extent do they share their resources to try to build a viable party?

Compare them to the LDP house cats who are sleek pets getting regularly feedings. How much more money does an LDP rep get? How much do they need to kick in to the kitty every month?

To drop my cat analogy it seems the LDP has the money to fund research into various policy initiatives and polling whereas the DPJ doesn't. This would seem to account for the DPJ's inability to come up with any kind of attractive ideas that might convince voters that the DPJ are ready to govern.