Saturday, December 13, 2008

Can the LDP save itself?

In a vitriolic post at Shisaku, MTC goes after those who insist that despite the LDP's current crisis — which has only gotten worse since back in January when Fukuda Yasuo called it the worst since the LDP's founding — the LDP will recover as it has done before.

I have encountered this argument all too frequently, and share MTC's frustration.

Rarely have I encountered someone who offers a causal mechanism to explain how the LDP will escape the reaper this time. The argument is usually presented as the simple assertion that the LDP has survived to the present day, so it will continue to survive. This argument is logically flawed. The LDP's survival in the past, despite defections and internal divisions, tells us nothing about whether the LDP will survive in the future. Arguably the LDP has never faced the possibility of defections while facing a major opposition party that was a plausible contender for power (indeed, an opposition party that was the largest party in the upper house). More importantly, the LDP has never contended with a major opposition party that was a plausible home for LDP defectors. While it is common to complain that the LDP and the DPJ are too similar, on the plus side the ideological overlap — if their similarities can be attributed to ideology — means that the DPJ is better prepared to welcome LDP malcontents than the Socialist Party ever was. The DPJ might be less attractive to LDP defectors by virtue of Ozawa Ichiro's being the party president, but it's not inconceivable that Mr. Ozawa could cut a deal regarding the premiership in order to bring in LDP members.

That said, it is far from certain what will happen. The next six-twelve months in Japanese politics will depend on contingencies and accidents, on the decisions taken or not taken by key individuals. But I'm still willing to predict that the LDP will fail to win a majority in the next general election, that the DPJ will, if it doesn't win an absolute majority, will still win enough seats with which to form a government. I'm less certain about whether the LDP will splinter. I'm certainly convinced that the LDP divided among seemingly irreconcilable ideological tendencies, but I'm willing to admit the possibiliy that the party's leaders will find a way to keep the party together, despite being unclear about the tools LDP leaders have at their disposal to keep dissatisfied members in the fold.

Various LDP bosses have publicly chastized Watanabe Yoshimi and other young turks for their "anti-Aso" activities, but I don't know what pressure is being applied in private. I'm guessing that there is little the party can do to stop Mr. Watanabe, a second-generation politician who has won his four terms in Tochigi's third district by sizeable margins and enjoys a certain prominence. But what the LDP can do is lean on the other young turks who might otherwise follow Mr. Watanabe in opposing and possibly leaving the LDP (Yamauchi Koichi, a first-term member from Kanagawa-9, is desperate in this post to make clear that Nakagawa Hidenao's new study group is not aimed as undermining Mr. Aso). It is unclear whether Mr. Nakagawa is willing to cut his ties with the LDP. Sankei suggests that the Machimura faction is working to contain Mr. Nakagawa; Abe Shinzo's participation in Mr. Nakagawa's study group on social policy is conspicuous in this regard. The group had fifty-seven members attend its inaugural meeting, but it is far from clear how many of those members are contemplating rebellion or whether their leader is prepared to support an effort to overthrow the government. He is still criticizing Mr. Aso — he criticized the prime minister's handling of the tax reform debate on a radio program Friday — and desires an election sooner rather than later, but he is giving few hints as to whether he'd be willing to back a break with the LDP.

It may take an election to break the LDP. Depending on the balance of power within the LDP post-election, certain blocs could be convinced to split should the LDP fall short of the majority while a certain bloc strengthens its hold. I imagine that Mr. Nakagawa hopes that his group of reformists will be left standing after an election, giving them the upper hand in a power struggle.

Given the LDP's divisions, can the LDP possibly save itself at the ballot box?

History is not in the LDP's favor. The LDP has failed to win majorities in every election under the new single-member district/proportional representation system but for the idiosyncratic 2005 election. It is nearly universally acknowledged that the LDP and Komeito will lose the supermajority they won in 2005. The question, then, is how far the LDP will fall. It is reasonable to surmise that the LDP will win no more than what it won in 2000 (233 seats) or 2003 (237 seats). It could conceivably do worse, as a result of widespread dissatisfaction throughout Japan over how the LDP has governed since the 2005 election.

As far as I'm concerned, the important question is whether the DPJ will come close enough to an absolute majority that it will have no trouble forming a government.

It's possible that I'm wrong. Like a good social scientist, I'm willing to accept the possibility that I'm mistaken, that my assumptions are faulty. In fact, my theory can be easily falsified: if the LDP remains in power after the next election and (presumably) remains united, I've clearly missed something, at which point it will be necessary to figure out precisely what was missing. In the meantime, as I — along with others, like MTC — have postulated, all signs point to the LDP's facing a reckoning at the next general election.

I'm waiting for someone who believes that the LDP will recover to tell me, in advance, what I'm missing. What will serve to keep the LDP in power? Will rural voters ultimately be unable to vote for the DPJ in a general election? Will the LDP's reformist candidates survive in urban districts that are trending back in the DPJ's favor? Will Mr. Ozawa repel a sufficient number of voters to save the LDP (as the LDP hopes)? Is there anyone out there who is convinced that the LDP will survive who can venture a causal explanation for how it will save itself, other than "it has done so in the past, and it will do so again?"

I'm not even convinced that the LDP has saved itself in the past so much as it has been lucky in its opponents. Its luck may have run out. It's amazing how that as the Aso government's support has plummeted, there are fewer stories about the divisions within the DPJ in the media. Nothing like the prospect of success to quiet discontent in the ranks.

1 comment:

David said...

I was once one of the "morons" who, as MTC wrote was skeptical about a possible loss by the LDP in the near future. As you and he have mentioned, it was more do with a belief in magical LDP invincibility (and expected opposition incompetence, plus Ozawa's smiling face) than any evidence that they could continue to hold power. I believe I wrote a similar comment here before.

However, things have changed so much in the last few months that even a moronic cynic such as myself has to face the fact that the party has reached the point where only "magic" could save it. Whereas in the past, folks would tell me something along the lines of "I like the DPJ, but I think the LDP is better for the economy." I no longer hear this, but instead folks are sort of disgustedly laughing at Aso and the LDP. After the US election, one guy asked me "How do you change [the party in power]. That doesn't mean much, but it there has been a noticeable change among those whom I have a chance to speak with about the subject.

As the LDP can no longer claim economic or any other type of competence, and as it seems to have become almost a laughing stock, it is hard to see how it could pull another one out of its hat.