Friday, November 2, 2007

The Jiminto Rule Assistance Association?

The revelation that Prime Minister Fukuda is seeking a grand coalition with the DPJ has unleashed a flurry of political activity, as the parties and the Japanese people struggle to make sense of the swiftly changing political environment.

DPJ backbenchers and rank-and-file supporters have come out resoundingly against the idea of joining a coalition with the LDP, with someone close to Mr. Ozawa in the party executive saying, "Ozawa-san will probably resign as party head."

Mr. Fukuda too may find himself in a tougher spot following this gambit.

The Japanese people, meanwhile, seem divided, with some seeing the value in a grand coalition, and others rejecting the idea as detrimental to the political process.

Prime Minister Fukuda is arguing that a grand coalition is "for the people." Yomiuri made similar arguments for the grand coalition back in August, and is once again arguing this on its editorial page. On the face of it, this logic seems impeccable: There are problems that must be addressed, and anything that interferes with finding a solution to urgent national problems (i.e., political competition) must be subordinated to the greater good.

I don't buy it. Many of Japan's problems either result from — a hangover, so to speak — decades of unaccountable LDP governance or were ignored by the LDP as they emerged. And now the answer is to subordinate political competition (and the enhanced accountability and transparency that result from it) to the solution of national problems? The DPJ, for all its faults (and there are many), poses a real challenge to LDP rule, and thus the more powerful it gets, the more it is able to question the LDP and its bureaucratic allies, the healthier the state of the Japanese polity. Democracy is not an end state but a process through which sectional interests clash and are reconciled in the pursuit of national interests. The stronger the parties, the better this process works. It is also a process by which those in power are held accountable for their actions. With control of the Upper House, the DPJ is in a position to both hold the LDP accountable and articulate its own solutions to Japan's problems, compromising with the LDP on an issue-by-issue basis.

I would argue that the creation of a new political system is as important to restoring Japan's vigor as is resolving the economic and social problems that beset the country; insofar as a grand coalition dedicated to addressing the latter retards the former, the grand coalition "cure" could be worse than the diseases.

The problem with this is that advocates of the LDP-DPJ grand coalition assume that partisan conflict with vanish if the two parties join hands in government. Given that the DPJ is hungrier than ever to unseat the LDP, it is foolish to think that this is so. Just look at Germany's CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition, which is now facing, according to Der Spiegel (in German), a "crisis climate." The SPD, its fortunes reviving after time spent in the doldrums, may yet prove to be a feistier partner for the center-right, potentially paralyzing Chancellor Merkel's government. The lesson here seems to be that it is an illusion to think that a grand coalition can spell the end of partisan conflict on issues of national importance. It could even make government more cumbersome and prone to gridlock than it is now. (Incidentally, I would curious to hear from my German readers what they think of their country's grand coalition and whether there are lessons from that that apply to the Japanese situation.)

I remain convinced that the LDP has less to lose from an LDP-DPJ grand coalition than the DPJ has to gain from joining it, and that if somehow the DPJ accepts Mr. Fukuda's offer, it will ensure the prolongation of LDP rule by demolishing the DPJ's prospects as an opposition party. The Fukuda government will try to present a grand coalition as a patriotic act, the only solution to the country's problems. The DPJ must utterly reject this idea by insisting that it is willing to cooperate with the government on some issues — and explaining the value of the competition between parties in a democratic system as beneficial for Japan over the long term.


Anonymous said...

The analogy between Fukuda's proposal for a grand coalition of LDP-DPJ parties and the difficulties facing the CDU-CSU-SDP grand coalition in Germany is a very apt one. One significant difference is that the German coalition rose out of the last election which would have ended in a minority government and so Angela Merkel made a deal with the SDP for joint governance. This is perfectly understandable because of her lack of experience and her desire to make it easier to get things done. But as you suggested this coalition has run into an increasingly difficult situation given the ideological differences between the CDU-CSU and the SDP. The danger in Japan is different because while there are some differences, the two parties are not really very far apart ideologically. In Germany, the differences have a long history that goes back to the 19th century and hence are deep and unlikely to be overcome by this grand coalition. Hopefully, Ozawa's feistiness and his hope to foster a viably independent party will force him to recognize the need to avoid jeopardizing the future of the DPJ by rejecting Fukuda's proposal for a totally unnecessary and purely expedient grab for power.

Garrett said...

Just out of curiosity...

Are you literate in German?

Japan Observer said...

More or less, but it's been a while since I studied — so I'm a bit rusty.

Bryce said...

Ach, und jetzt haben wir die Leiden des alten Ichiros.

Ozawa's stance may now be an academic question. He's just announced his intention to resign.

Question for the punters: Does this mean the end of a realistic challenge for the leadership by the DPJ?

Anonymous said...

It seems impossible that Ozawa would accept a coalition with the LDP. He should understand better than anyone what happened to the Socialist Party after he drove them into a coalition with the LDP - they lost all their credibility. At the time, he seemed to think it was impossible that the Socialists would even want to do it.
Besides, given the relative lack of power that ministers have in the Japanese government, it would be mostly symbolic. If they want to make legislative deals (i.e. you pass this in the lower house, we'll pass this in the upper house), they can already do that.
I don't think ideological contrast is as important in appealing to Japanese voters as an image of competence and reform.