Monday, December 15, 2008

Political Japan awaits a black swan

"SOCIAL ENTROPY: A measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system. Much of the energy consumed by a social organization is spent to maintain its structure, counteracting social entropy, e.g., through legal institutions, education, the normative consequences or television." – Krippendorff's Dictionary of Cybernetics
The LDP is in an advanced state of decay. Not surprisingly, as its death throes worsen, as the chaos within its ranks grow, more energy is being expended simply to preserve the fiction that the LDP remains a coherent party capable of governing its own members, let alone Japan. As entropy grows, so too does the energy dedicated to preserving the structure.

The signs of decay are everywhere.

At present the leading example is the developing Watanabe mutiny, which shows no signs of abating. Watanabe Yoshimi appealed to Prime Minister Aso for cooperation in a speech in Fukushima prefecture Saturday, but only on Mr. Watanabe's terms. Mr. Watanabe criticized Mr. Aso's new stimulus package as doing little to shift power from the bureaucracy to the politicians. "Change for this country," he said, "is truly desired." Behind Mr. Watanabe stands what AERA suggests is a group of forty-eight young reformists who share Mr. Watanabe's desire for wide-reaching reform and fear for their political lives. These forty-eight, including Shiozaki Yasuhisa, chief cabinet secretary under Abe Shinzo, are more than sufficient to overthrow the government by depriving the government of its supermajority. The question is whether they are willing to do so. The article makes a good point in suggesting that the reformists may have nowhere to go: with the DPJ running candidates in nearly 250 of 300 single-member districts, many of the Koizumians — particularly those in their first or second terms — face uphill battles for reelection and are hardly in a position to run to the DPJ. In Albert Hirschman's terms, their exit option is limited, so they are left trying to exercise voice within the LDP by forming study groups and publicly criticizing the prime minister. (And the DPJ will do everything it can to encourage the exercise of voice by LDP members — just as LDP officials have cheered for DPJ members opposing Ozawa Ichiro and criticized the lack of voice within the DPJ.)

Perhaps this explains Kan Naoto's inclusion in what is now being referred to as the YKKK. Growing out of the LDP's liberal dynamic duo of Yamasaki Taku and Kato Koichi, the final two letters are for Kan Naoto, DPJ executive, and Kamei Shizuka, founder of the People's New Party. Messrs. Yamasaki and Kato are apparently in touch with the latter two regarding the possibility of a post-election realignment. Asahi reports that Mr. Kato is open to leaving the LDP before an election — as are the other two (naturally) — but Mr. Yamasaki is reluctant, saying only that his goal is ending the divided Diet. Accordingly, Mr. Yamasaki joined the six other faction leaders to voice their support of the Aso government.

Based on the combination of names, the YKKK looks to me more like a way for a potential DPJ-led coalition government to pry away some LDP members than the basis for a comprehensive political realignment. The liberals are even more alienated within the LDP than the Koizumian neo-liberals, and have little to lose from leaving the LDP. It's little wonder that Mr. Kan would want to pry the liberals into the DPJ; not only would the bolster the party's numbers, but they would strengthen Mr. Kan's group within the DPJ. Not surprisingly, Mr. Kan has rejected the notion of a realignment before a general election. (I should add that this must be precisely what Ozawa Ichiro wants: all talk of a realignment is focused on LDP members defecting, as opposed to the dissolution of both the LDP and the DPJ during a realignment. The YKKK resembles less a multi-partisan alliance than the opposition parties looking to pluck low-hanging fruit from the LDP.)

The LDP's leadership, consistent with the notion of social entropy, is taking all of these threats seriously — these manifestations of entropy within the LDP. The party elders have closed ranks around the prime minister. Mori Yoshiro, don of the Machimura faction and a former prime minister who knows something about low approval ratings, most recently lashed out at Messrs. Yamasaki and Kato, as well as Nakagawa Hidenao. "Deplorable," he said. "Nothing but carefree, thoughtless politicians who have profaned all who have done the hard work of building Japan's politics." Ibuki Bunmei, Mr. Abe's education minister and LDP secretary-general under Fukuda Yasuo, has also spoken up on the prime minister's behalf, first by arguing that the party has no choice but to stick with Mr. Aso, because the public would be outraged if the LDP picked a fourth leader without a general election (how is four any less bad than three?) and then by warning that the YKKK could be like the KKK, "assassinating" young LDP members who follow them. It's hard to describe just how offensive this is, although MTC tries. But lame attempt at a joke aside, Mr. Ibuki couldn't be more wrong. Staying loyal to the Aso LDP — Mr. Aso's name has been inserted before the party's name in recent promotional material — at the same time that the party has moved ever further from the platform that got so many of the young LDP members elected in the first place seems like a terrible career move. Mr. Ibuki forgets that the party has systematically alienated its young Koizumians in the two years since Mr. Koizumi left office. How could the YKKK, or whatever alternative emerges, possibly be worse?

The LDP leadership's goal is to both close off exit options and stifle the exercise of voice.

None of this is to say that any one scenario is inevitable. There are number of possibilities for the coming year: a pre-election realignment that involves defection of the liberals and/or the neo-liberals; the creation of a neo-liberal third party before or after the next election; no change before a general election, in which the Koizumians are defeated; a fierce leadership struggle in the DPJ should Mr. Ozawa be forced to step down due to ill health. No one can say with any certainty which scenario will come to pass. The actors themselves don't know. The Japanese political system is waiting for a black swan of one form or another, the next jump in the history of Japanese politics. "History and societies," Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote, "do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between."

What is certain is that the LDP establishment is losing its grip over the LDP and its constituent parts. They cannot silence mutinous backbenchers. They cannot stop backbenchers from forming study groups working at cross purposes with the government. When the right opportunity comes, they will most likely be unable to stop discontented members from leaving.

And they cannot stop voters and interest groups who have long supported the LDP from breaking with the LDP to support the DPJ.

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