Monday, May 11, 2009

How severe is the fallout from Ozawa's fall?

Despite widespread expectations that he would not survive to lead the DPJ into this year's general election, Ozawa Ichiro's resignation is reverberating around the Japanese political system.

Aso Taro, commenting on the Ozawa's resignation, claimed that he could not understand why Ozawa would resign now, two days before the debate scheduled between the party leaders. It does not seem that hard to understand to me. Why would Ozawa stand up and speak on behalf of a party that had been sending overt signals that it wanted an amicable divorce from its embattled leader? Why would the DPJ want him to speak for the party? Did Ozawa reach this conclusion himself, or did someone senior within the party have to lean on him?

Regardless of why Ozawa finally decided it was time to go, he's gone. Not surprisingly he said very little in his press conference Monday, other than that he was stepping down for the sake of party unity and the goal of regime change.

The political consequences of his resignation are actually not particularly interesting, at least compared to his last resignation, when the DPJ was not quite ready to part with its helmsman. I anticipate a smooth return to the leadership for Okada Katsuya. He's probably the one candidate acceptable to the party's various factions and sects — he inspires neither love nor loathing (unlike Ozawa), but he is acceptable. At this point acceptable to all is good enough. If it is Okada, he won't be a significant departure in policy terms from the outspoken Mr. Ozawa.

On foreign policy, he accepts Japan's alliance-centered foreign policy but has recently suggested that the US-Japan relationship should not be overdependent on the bilateral military relationship (a view reciprocated by some in the Obama administration). Like others in his party, he wants Japan to cooperate more with its Asian neighbors.

On domestic policy, he has the inescapable air of a technocrat, not surprising considering his background as a MITI official, and as a result he does not ooze pathos when talking about the nation's problems as some other politicians do. But he has a solid grasp of the issues, he has reformist credentials, and he has worked hard to travel the country and connect with voters like Ozawa has done. Given his background, he might even be better at coaxing the bureaucracy to accept the DPJ's administrative reform plans. Although I'm not certain about this: lasting administrative reform may require a dramatic battle of the sort that would have likely occurred under an Ozawa premiership. Sankei cites an anonymous source at METI headquarters who wonders whether an Okada premiership would be better for the bureaucracy than an Ozawa premiership. If there is a different, it is not a matter of an agenda. The DPJ's adminstrative reform plans predate Ozawa's leadership of the party. What is at issue is the enthusiasm with which the new leader goes about the task.

Either way, Okada is more than adequate. If the LDP isn't worried — and there were signs earlier in the Ozawa scandal that the government feared that Okada would replace Ozawa — it should be, if only because, as MTC notes, with Ozawa gone, so goes one of the last obstacles keeping voters from embracing the DPJ.

Would the same apply if Hatoyama Yukio, the outgoing secretary-general who has virtually served as Ozawa's footman, is elected DPJ president? He may have adequate support from the left of the party, but I think Hatoyama would be more compromised as party leader than Okada. Hatoyama, like the prime minister, is a scion of a political family who in his time in leadership posts in the DPJ has shown himself to be better suited to supporting roles than to leadership. Hatoyama, I think, would be the poorer of the two choices in a race with Okada. And I wonder whether his time as Ozawa's designated apologizer will tar his image.

Regardless of who winds up as party leader, the tasks facing the new leader are simple: don't forget the countryside, remind voters how disastrous LDP rule has been just since the last election, add some details to the party's economic plans, and prevent LDP politicians from running against the LDP. Don't let LDP reformists get away with their bait-and-switch again.

8 comments:

Adam said...

A Yomiuri report from the morning of the 12th indicates one issue over which the DPJ leadership battle will be fought. (http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/feature/20090511-674295/news/20090512-OYT1T00531.htm)

That's right: Legacy politics! Okada stood up before a Diet finance committee and said hereditary rule weakens democracy. His point was aimed at the Aso cabinet but his comments could apply to Hatoyama Yukio, 4th-gen politico and potential rival. The same article reports that Hatoyama for his part has thrown neither hat nor towel into the ring and is still "undecided".

If Okada wins, part of the general election rhetoric will likely concern this issue. Therefore,
some "bocchan's" in the LDP might be hoping Hatoyama stays on to take some steam out of this particular "reform" issue. (Soprano moment: "Whaddya bustin' my balls for here? Lookit Yukio-kun f'pete's sake!")

Whether limiting hereditary access will lead to change has been well debated on this blog and in comments. However, there is no denying the perceived populist bent to this issue. Saturday's Asahi front page laid out the statistics: 33% of all LDP-held seats up for election are generational. The LDP knows they have an image problem here: Notice how they scrambled to create a "Citizen Aso" ad campaign after he admitted to drinking in high-class hotels.

The recession has seriously challenged the ideology of the "great middle class". Focusing on the legacy issue is one way for the LDP to do less on more substantive social and economic issues. Populist nationalism is also being encouraged. One LDP official in a NYT article from last week in effect said that all the dirty jobs held by foreigners should be better paid and given to Japanese, with foreigners given a one-way ticket home. This voluntary repatriation scheme has begun in earnest. General election campaigning may well be tainted by this kind of hateful rhetoric.

vincent said...

What I remember form Okada Katsuya during the election campaign in 2005, is that he is awfully boring. As many voters in Japan seem to vote more for a face than for the contents, I doubt that Okada can force a regime change. I fear the voters will still not be ready to abandon en masse the LDP.

AC said...

As you note, Hatoyama is gravely compromised by his acting as Ozawa apologist-in-chief. But to be honest, I dont see Okada as a much better choice. Don't people in the party remember what a disaster he was on the campaign trail and on TV last time in '05? He led the DPJ to ruin in the last general election, and they're going to turn to him to lead them into the next one? Is there no one ready to come off the bench who hasn't already failed as party leader?

Derek said...

I don't think the fact that Okada was the face of opposition to Koizumi's postal reforms (whatever you think of them) helps his "reformist credentials."

catoneinutica said...

"Bait and switch" tactics are least of the stratagems the LDP will use to stay in power. They're nothing if not resilient. Hence my comment over at f*ckedgaijin:

I stopped reading the "Observing Japan" blog by super-prolix fatuity-peddler Tobias Harris last December when he wrote:


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...

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.

http://www.observingjapan.com/2008/1...ve-itself.html

Start figurin', Tobe! The LDP is perennially on the brink of being booted from power...sometime in the future. As to a "causal mechanism to explain how the LDP will escape the reaper this time," I'll offer one: inertia. Fifty-four years of virtually uninterrupted rule makes for a lot of it.

Tobias Harris said...

Catoneinutica,

And yet here you are commenting...

Inertia isn't an explanation; it's the phenomenon that needs explaining. Simply asserting "inertia" is precisely what I have a problem with.

So what is it? Culture? Economics? The electoral system? Lousy DPJ candidates? Worse DPJ leaders?

In any case, it seems foolish to offer an explanation before an election is held. The LDP apparently does not seem content to rely on "inertia."

AC said...

The causual mechanism this time (which to be fair wasn't much of an option for the LDP at the time Tobias wrote that in December) is to run against the DPJ. The DPJ tends to do well when an election is about dissatisfaction with the LDP, less so when it's about anything else. If the question at hand is whether the party is ready to lead and can be trusted to do so, the "gang who can't shoot straight" is going to face an uphill battle. Their best hope was to make the election entirely about the LDP's pathetic governance post-Koizumi.

The party's reaction to the Ozawa scandal, however -- stonewalling and attacking the public prosecutors -- is a serious self-inflicted wound in that it gives the LDP an opening to set the narrative. And while I think it still might be possible for the DPJ to come out ahead of the LDP in the coming general election, even given the damage, I don't see how either Hatoyama or Okada is the person to lead them to the promised land, as both have proved to be failures as party leaders in the past.

Hatoyama comes across to women voters in particular as extremely "kimoi," and Okada is the very caricature of a soulless bureaucrat. Add to that the fact that Hatoyama was front and center in covering for Ozawa, while Okada may have a hard time running as a "reformer" when he was leading the charge against the quite popular postal-privatization drive of Koizumi. He's also an incredibly wooden speaker. The idea of the two of them vying for the top spot is akin to the US Democrats limiting themselves to Michael Dukakis and John Kerry in the '08 nomination contest without bothering to look for an Obama or a Hillary. With either of these two retreads at the helm, the LDP has, I believe, a better than even chance of holding on.

Anonymous said...

So Ozawa has decided to reliquish the leadership of the DPJ but continue as a bankbencher in the Diet. To me he represents the fading of the Tanaka-Takeshita-Kanemaru lineage and a reputation as kingmaker. But he also leaves with his own iconoclastic take on Japanese politics. In the decade of the nineties, Ozawa cast a high profile but enigmatic persona on the fractured and fragmented politics of the first post-Cold War decade. He was notable for having first raised the issue of Japan "going nuclear." He also raised the issue of Japan moving beyond its alliance with the US and promoting UN peacekeeping as an alternative for Japanese foreign policy. In a minor way, he represents the end of an era, just as Obama represents the end of the Reaganomics era and the beginning of a (return) to the liberal economics of the New Deal. Perhaps this last observation may not be as strange as it appears because Reagonomics itself always struck me as a return to the pre-Depression laissez faire economics of the twenties.