Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reaping the whirlwind

How can the LDP govern Japan when it can barely govern itself?

The war of attrition that has been waged between the Koizumian remnant in the LDP and the rest of the party since Koizumi stepped down as prime minister in 2006 has entered a particularly bloody phase as the Koizumians have decided to launch a final offensive in the hope of toppling Asō Tarō before he can call a general election.

Yamamoto Taku, the lower house member collecting signatures to "recall" Asō by forcing an early party election, has stepped up his effort in the hope of collecting the requisite 216 signatures (half the total number of LDP members of both houses and the chairs of the prefectural party chapters) by 13 July, the date of the general meeting of LDP members from both houses. Beyond Yamamoto's signature drive, on Tuesday afternoon a new study group — the Manifesto Association — held its first meeting. The association is a collection of nine different Diet members' leagues of the reformist stripe and plans to draft proposals for inclusion in the party's election manifesto. The association wants the party's manifesto drafted before the Diet is dissolved and an election called. Not surprisingly, many in the party suspect that this group has a not-so-ulterior motive of toppling Asō.

There is a certain symmetry to this explosion of open opposition to the Asō government and, by extension, the LDP establishment, which continues to back the prime minister. Four years ago it was the reformists who were in control of the party and the agenda. During the summer of postal reform, it was the reformists who were advancing, with the LDP establishment doing everything in its power to slow Koizumi's agenda — with the small band of postal rebels eventually emerging to challenge Koizumi openly. Indeed, it was around this time four years ago that the LDP establishment delivered a blow to Koizumi when the LDP's general council broke with precedent to hold a majority vote on proposed revisions to the government's postal privatization bills.

Since then of course the reformists have been in steady retreat against a resurgent party establishment, bringing us to this latest round of infighting, a last-ditch attempt by the reformists to steer the LDP in a new direction.

Whether by design or not, Koizumi appears to have destroyed the LDP. The reformist remnant that was supposed to be the vanguard of a new LDP appears to be better at destruction than creation, skilled at undermining governments deemed insufficiently committed to their reform plans but incapable of putting forward their own candidate for the party leadership or convincing other members of the party to embrace the reformist agenda as being beneficial for the party as a whole.

I am not questioning their policy ideas, which, after all are not altogether different from ideas being floated by the DPJ. The difference, however, is that the DPJ lacks the pathologies of LDP rule. The LDP has become ungovernable. No authority can bring recalcitrant members to heel. No leader can impose a unifying vision on a party home to fundamentally incompatible visions for what the LDP should be.

In some sense the decline of the factions is responsible for the anarchy within the LDP, in that conflict within the LDP used to be conducted among organized groups that obeyed certain basic rules and were fighting less over policy visions than they were fighting for control over party resources. Which is not to say that factional conflict was tame (cf. the Kaku-Fuku sensō), but that it lacked the ideological fervor that the Koizumians have brought to the LDP. Like the international system, a once orderly balance of power has given way to a unipolar factional system (with the Machimura faction playing the role of the US) sitting atop an unruly party in which factions exist alongside a myriad of study groups, non-partisan groups, policy zoku, and other smaller, less organized groups (much as nation-states and U.S. unipolarity exist alongside international organizations, terrorist groups and gangs, multinational corporations and the like).

Anarchy within the LDP has had severe consequences for Japan, having paralyzed the Japanese government just when Japan needed a government capable of assessing problems clearly and responding decisively.

And so we have the Asō government, which is fighting to the death for the privilege to lead the LDP to defeat. To save himself, Asō will say or do anything. The reformists, supposedly eager to save the LDP, will do anything to push their agenda and elevate another party leader, despite the obvious contempt such an act would show for the Japanese public. Asō still enjoys the upper hand in this fight, in that the reformists, while a vocal minority, are still a minority. They are making life difficult for the prime minister (while making life easier for the DPJ, which will face an LDP whose members have spent months fighting amongst themselves), but they cannot dictate terms to the LDP. Shiozaki Yasuhisa and company are deluding themselves if they think that the rest of the LDP will allow the reformists to dictate the party's manifesto, making this round of fighting especially futile. If the LDP were capable of drafting a manifesto that the whole party could accept — no matter how watered down its proposals — and agreeing to stand behind Asō, the party would at least make the DPJ fight for every seat and perhaps deprive it of a majority. As matters stand now, the DPJ stands a good chance of taking a simple majority on its own.

The question remains what will happen following an LDP electoral defeat. Will the reformists use the occasion to break from the LDP and form their own party? Will they continue the internecine fight for control of the LDP? With each act of rebellion against the Asō government, the reformists make it less likely that they will be a welcome part of a post-defeat LDP.

None of this is to say that Asō is an ideal leader or that there is a right side and a wrong side in the battle between the reformists and the party establishment. Rather, the problem is the LDP itself, that LDP government has meant brutal and ceaseless infighting within the ruling party, which has made for irregular and more often than not deeply ineffective government. That is reason enough for the LDP to be removed from power.


Anonymous said...

Tempted to respond to your observation about the "anarchy" prevailing in the LDP because of the ideological battle between the Koizumian reformists and the old guard, because as you know I have often commented on the role of Koizumi in creating this state of affairs within the LDP. But I wish to draw your attention to an article in the Financial Times (War on the Samurai, June 30) which expands on the theme that should the DPJ win the next general election, they will wage an all out battle to rein in the (role of) the bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki who have been allowed for too long to dominate policy making. You have not devoted much time to this subject and so I would like to suggest that you plan one or more articles to it in the near future.

Anonymous said...

I think Yu Uchiyama's essay on "Shifting Prime Ministerial Power and its Consequences on Neoliberal Reforms in Japan" (2009) is quite useful to grasp the crucial links between Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho. Most importantly he underlines that is not institutional design alone that matters but also the willingness to "use institutional leverage". So it really depends on the DPJs skills to shape the relevant processes.