Sunday, March 29, 2009

The electoral consequences of Mr. Ozawa

Chiba's gubernatorial election, held Sunday, was viewed by some DPJ members going into the election as a critical test for Ozawa Ichiro's fragile leadership of the party.

Coming within a week of the indictment of Okubo Takanori and Ozawa's decision to hold on despite the indictment, Ozawa's critics insisted that the Chiba election, in which DPJ-backed independent Yoshida Taira faced off against LDP-backed independent (and former actor) Morita Kensaku and three others, would measure the impact of the scandal on the electoral prospects of DPJ candidates. They would treat a defeat as a sign that if Ozawa leads the DPJ into the general election, he will gravely undermine his party's candidates.

Ozawa's many enemies apparently have something to celebrate: Morita defeated Yoshida by a sizeable margin, receiving 1,015,978 votes to Yoshida's 636,991, with the other three candidates (including one JCP-backed independent) receiving a total of 577,781 votes.

A Mainichi/TBS exit poll found that independents broke for Morita over Yoshida by a 45% to 24% margin — and also found that non-aligned respondents have not yet decided which party they will back in the general election, with 60% undecided compared with 24% who back the DPJ and 9% who back the LDP. At the same time, however, the poll found that independents are favorably disposed to the "opposition parties" over the "government parties" by a margin of 59% to 32%. In other words, it is unclear whether the Chiba election tells us anything about the impact of Ozawa's political troubles on his party's ability to contest elections.

After all, the votes received by the three other candidates in the election more than made up the difference between Morita and Yoshida. In a one-on-one campaign, would Morita have won by such a decisive margin, if at all? Given that many of the races in the 300 single-member districts will be solely between LDP and DPJ candidates, it is premature to declare that the DPJ's prospects in a general election are now hopeless. Facing LDP incumbents — all 303 of them — desperate to distance themselves from not just Aso Taro, but also Abe Shinzo and Fukuda Yasuo, will DPJ candidates really be so harmed by the cloud surrounding Ozawa? The independents broke one way in this election, a gubernatorial election in which the LDP-backed candidate was able to keep the party at arm's length and run on the strength of personal popularity, but will LDP lower house candidates be so lucky later this year? Even LDP secretary-general Hosoda Hiroyuki was reluctant to attribute Morita's victory to the Okubo indictment, citing instead the Morita's "high degree of name recognition." (Of course, if the LDP wants Ozawa to stay at the helm of the DPJ, Hosoda would have good reason to play down the impact of Ozawa on the election.)

Despite reasons for questioning the significance of the Chiba election, Ozawa will undoubtedly continue to face criticism and pressure to resign from the DPJ anti-mainstream. A recent Asahi snap poll will provide more ammunition for Ozawa's critics: the poll recorded a marked shift in support for Aso and the LDP, doubt about Ozawa's explanation of the scandal, and a desire to see Ozawa resign (63% in favor, 24% opposed). And yet respondents still intend to support the DPJ in PR voting in the general election — and although there was slight shift, still overwhelmingly desire a DPJ-centered government.

I am not sure what to make of the polling about Ozawa, because while various polls have found majorities in favor of Ozawa's resigning, they don't seem to ask whether Ozawa's staying on will dramatically impact their willingness to vote for a DPJ candidate in their district. It is conceivable that the opposition to Ozawa's staying on is soft, driven more by the frenzied news coverage than by an enduring allergy to Ozawa's leadership that would lead a voter to not even consider voting for a DPJ candidate.

Nevertheless, Ozawa is still in a vulnerable position, not helped by Hatoyama Yukio's discussion of the possibility of Ozawa's stepping down in advance of a general election if polling numbers don't improve. Ultimately the only polling numbers that matter are the number of votes received in an election — I don't think newspaper polls are so unambiguously clear that Ozawa and the DPJ should be making decisions on the basis of their findings. Perhaps the party has internal polling that better measures the Ozawa drag on DPJ candidates, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, I think Hatoyama's suggestion that Ozawa (and Hatoyama himself) might resign just before an election is folly. How would the party be helped by being leaderless immediately preceding an election? At some point the party's leaders have to accept that they have taken a calculated risk in leaving Ozawa in to pitch and live with it. I still think it is premature to conclude that the party made a mistake backing Ozawa's decision to stay on as party president.


daonei said...

My thought: Ozawa wants to stay on and maintain leadership for as long as he can. Concurrently, he probably does not mind disappearing into the shadows like the good old days and running the DPJ from behind the scenes.
If no other scandals or details come up in the coming months and if his image is not directly affecting the election, he will probably stay on.
However, if more surfaces in the coming months regarding the Nishimatsu scandal or if his leadership is setting back the DPJ, he will probably quickly step down.
It seems like his decision to stay on is a win-win situation for himself and the party. Stepping down would admit complete guilt of the scandal and risk losing the entire election. Staying on slightly blurs the intensity of the scandal and allows him to construct the DPJ and his image in the coming months for the general public.
It will be an interesting few months in Japanese politics.

AC said...

I've never put much stock in a gubernatorial election serving as a harbinger of general election results, as the issues at stake are by definition local, and electing a governor of whatever party has no impact on who will be the nation's prime minister.

But a general election -- especially proportional representation -- is a question about that very fact, and voters are going to be extremely hesitant to vote for the DPJ if they think doing so means a corrupt premier whose party exists to defend him against public prosecutors. As long as the election was going to be about LDP (mis)rule, the DPJ was likely to win. However, if the question can be reframed as "Do you want Ozawa to be prime minister?" then I suspect that a significant portion of the protest votes that the DPJ has traditionally relied on (they get far more anti-LDP votes than pro-DPJ votes) will go to the communists, putting the LDP in the driver's seat.

The election will not be framed by the DPJ; the LDP and DPJ will compete over how the media frame it, and the media right now are not being particularly charitable to the Ozawa DPJ, to put it mildly. There's no reason to think that an unreprentant Ozawa isn't going to be absolutely hammered by both the LDP and the media during the campaign.