Thursday, July 26, 2007

Into the home stretch

The campaign is in its final days, the headlines continue to point to a disastrous loss for the LDP and suggest that even Komeito might lose a couple seats — and yet even if the DPJ wins, the outcome and consequences of the election are far from clear.

First, though, just some thoughts about how many seats the LDP might come away with: at a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan last night, Futatsuki Hirotaka suggested that the LDP could win as few as five of the twenty-nine single-seat district elections, which, if you'll recall, is half my worst-case scenario prediction of ten. Toshikawa Takao of Tokyo Insideline, meanwhile, suggested that it is a real possibility that the LDP could win fewer than forty seats. Mainichi reports today that forty may be the line beyond which Prime Minister Abe will find it impossible to hold power.

At the same time, there has been some discussion of the LDP's "voiding" the election results procedurally by combining its Upper House caucus with Komeito's to ensure that the governing coalition would remain the largest single "party" in the Upper House, giving them the right to choose the head of the Upper House and thus wield power over the agenda. (The prevailing arrangement is that the largest caucus chooses the head, the second largest the deputy.) That said, if Asahi's latest prediction that the LDP and Komeito will win only a combined forty-eight seats to the DPJ's fifty-eight is accurate, with the DPJ having a greater number of Upper House members not up for reelection this year, that procedural "coup" would be impossible, just barely.

At the same time, however, I cannot help but wonder what will happen if the LDP somehow manages forty-five seats — undoubtedly after weeks of bleak news, that result would be spun as a major victory for the prime minister (and it would make the above procedural move possible, if the LDP was willing to risk public opprobrium for undermining the results of Sunday's vote).

If, however, the worst-case scenario occurs and the LDP wins fewer than forty — or even thirty-five seats — Abe will be finished, with Mori Yoshiro, former prime minister and current LDP kuromaku, acting as the executioner. (Mori, according to Jiji, has just predicted a dissolution of the Lower House in the event of a DPJ victory, due to the government's inability to pass legislation.) The panelists at the FCCJ last night, talking about possible successors, suggested that the LDP would unite quickly behind a mild, low-profile candidate who would be able to avoid the verbal gaffes and missteps of the Abe Cabinet, in other words, the party is unlikely to turn to Foreign Minister Aso (Toshikawa suggested that it might be Fukuda Yasuo's turn).

And what of the DPJ? There was plenty of skeptical talk last night about the DPJ, which remains riven with divisions and, in the words of Temple University Japan's Jeff Kingston in this FT article on Ozawa, "The DPJ is a party just waiting to unravel." If a Lower House dissolution and election in the spring looks to be increasingly likely, will the DPJ jettison Ozawa and opt for another leader to serve as a potential prime minister? Will the LDP push legislation that plays upon the divisions within the DPJ in an attempt to entice the more conservative wing of the party into secession? I think we can be certain of the latter, especially with the Yanai panel's recommendations on collective self-defense set to be discussed in the fall.

The one thing to keep in mind is that this drama is going to take weeks, even months to play out, with Prime Minister Abe potentially lingering on into September, until after the APEC summit in Australia.

What is interesting is how the sureties of the Japanese political system have collapsed. The LDP is facing open rebellion in the countryside that could claim the careers of even the most senior LDP candidates up for reelection. What is happening, it seems, is that pent-up outrage at the consequences of Koizumi's structural reforms has coalesced thanks in part to the pensions scandal, which seems to be playing the role of the proverbial last straw on the overladen backs of Japan's rural voters. (Structural reform: too incomplete to satisfy urban voters, complete enough to harm rural Japan.)

As a result, Ozawa's strategy of taking advantage of rural discontent means less emphasis on the kinds of policies designed to appeal to urban floating voters usually drawn to vote for the opposition.

It is hard to believe, however, that the rural desertion of the LDP will be a permanent change; undoubtedly the party's leadership will get the message, some heads will roll, and the LDP will have drawn the farmers back to the fold in time for the next Lower House election. At the same time, however, if the LDP responds with an orgy of pork-barrel politics, it may seal its doom in the medium and long term, driving urban voters more firmly into the arms of the DPJ. Whatever the case may be, it seems that the status quo is highly unstable, and Sunday may likely prove to be the catalyst for a series of changes that redraws political boundaries and new partisan divisions.

1 comment:

Durf said...

Kingston's "party waiting to unravel" comment is one that could just as well be leveled at the LDP, I think. The DPJ comes under fire for being an amalgam of unrelated interest groups, but that isn't any different from the pro-agriculture and pro-postal and anti-postal and hawkish-foreign-policy and inward-looking groups in the Liberal Democrats. For all the talk about the DPJ's lack of cohesion, the party hasn't done anything quite as spectacular as Koizumi's expulsion of the postal gang and sending of "assassins" to take their seats.

I think the election results will firm up the DPJ as a cohesive bunch. If they can start talking on-message, especially to urban voters, they're in no danger of imploding or spinning into a number of shard parties.