Sunday, February 14, 2010

Credit where credit is due

Another poll, more bad news for the Hatoyama government.

In Jiji Press's February public opinion poll, the Hatoyama government's disapproval rating surpassed its approval rating for the first time, with the former rising twelve points to nearly 45% and the latter falling eleven to nearly 36%. Disapproval among self-described independents rose thirteen points to roughly 46%. The LDP managed to gain little more than a percentage point in its support.

And yet despite sinking public approval numbers, the government has does not appeared to be fazed. Indeed, in a speech Sunday Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya stressed that the poll numbers had reached a floor and would improve from here.

Whether Okada's optimism is merited or not, the Hatoyama government deserves credit for not panicking in response to slumping public approval. If there was one problem with LDP governments for much of the party's rule — at least in recent years — it was hyper-sensitivity to public opinion. In just the last three years, we watched the process unfold like clockwork. Falling public approval led concerns about the prime minister's weakening "centripetal force" as LDP officials began to question his leadership; intra-party opponents to the prime minister's agenda would intensify their resistance; some party elder (usually Mori Yoshiro) would call for a cabinet reshuffle; and so on until resignation and ultimately a general election in the worst of circumstances.

For the most part, we are not witnessing the same downward spiral unfold under DPJ rule. The Hatoyama government has not panicked in response to newspaper polls, and appears to be carrying on with business as usual, insofar as we can call the work of this government "usual." While there have been murmurs within the DPJ about Ozawa Ichiro's staying on as secretary-general, the prime minister's grip (or perhaps, more properly, the cabinet's grip) on the party appears firm or even firmer than ever, even as the media measures the prime minister's coffin. To a certain extent, the Hatoyama government may not be overreacting to poll numbers because it is focused on the task of implementing its agenda over the course of four years, and believes that the only numbers that matter are the results of the next general election (and to a lesser extent the upcoming upper house election).

But the other reason why the Hatoyama government has not overreacted is because it is not facing the same pressure from its parliamentary majority that its LDP predecessors faced. The DPJ simply deserves credit for keeping its backbenchers in line. By closing the policy research council upon taking office, clamping down on Diet members' leagues, and Ozawa's ordering newly elected members to make getting reelected their primary and only task, a dysfunctional LDP that was able to prevent its prime ministers and cabinets from effectively formulating policy has given way to a passive DPJ that is not standing in the way of its cabinet and prime minister. Of course, much of the credit here goes to Ozawa, who has centralized powers divided within the LDP in his office — and who continues to inspire fear among most DPJ members. Sankei provides an interesting example here: distributing a survey concerning money politics, voting rights for resident foreigners, and other issues to Diet members, only thirty-nine of the DPJ's 421 members in the two houses replied to the survey, a reply rate of only 9%. Naturally Sankei complains in this article about the DPJ's protecting its silence and its members being afraid of Ozawa, but Sankei's displeasure is an illustration of just how successful the DPJ has been at controlling its own members. Contra LDP members who have criticized the DPJ for lacking intraparty democracy, arguably the degree of democracy within the ruling party is inversely correlated with the effectiveness of national democracy as expressed in cabinet government. Allowing backbenchers to do whatever they please — which is what the LDP came to in its final years once the factions were unable to provide even a modicum of intraparty discipline — is a recipe for immobile government.

None of this is to deny that the Hatoyama government is without problems. Concentrating policymaking power in the cabinet is no guarantee that the cabinet will use its power wisely or effectively. But then that's part of democracy too. The newly empowered cabinet will succeed or fail at the polls based on its performance, having no one to blame but itself should it fail to deliver on its promises.


buvery said...

Because of massive attack from DOJ beaurocrats and the media, or as some say, the only opposition and the PR branch of the opposition, the support for the cabinet and Hatoyama has fallen. But, DPJ is not pressed by the poll, simply because the support for DPJ itself has not been diminished so radically. The only realistic opposition party, LDP, has gained only about half the support of DPJ, meaning that the support of the Hatoyama cabinet is not critical for the next upper house election this summer. Once DPJ cement the upper house, they will grab three years of stable political power.

During the LDP era, especially after Koizumi, the situation was totally different. The basic support of LDP was low (remember the support rate of 8% of Mori Yoshiro cabinet). Everybody thought the days of LDP was numbered. Koizumi revitalized LDP support with his theatrical tactic and his charisma. That meant that the support of the cabinet or the prime minister himself was directly translated into the support of the party. That is why LDP backbenchers at the time complained and tried to change their head every year to gain support for LDP and, therefore, the backbenchers themselves.

I agree on your opinion that Ozawa manages the freshly elected members of the party very well. However, the attack by LDP is another reason for the support for DPJ. LDP is claiming that DPJ is not the hopey and changey as DPJ claims, and DPJ has the same old baggage. But this degrades LDP too, because it means LDP is the exact same old politics they are attacking. "You are dirty too," type of attack does not gain new support for LDP. That is why the support for both parties has not changed drastically.

If Kouno Taro is elected as the president of LDP, things might be different. But as it is, LDP is no threat to DPJ for at least one year.

Delta said...

A refreshing piece indeed, stepping back from the _waa-kyaa_ of much reporting about Nagatacho.

The poll numbers might not unsettle the Hatoyama cabinet too much, but they do nothing to calm the jitters among backbenchers. Indeed, magazines now herald the end of _Ozawa Kakuei seiji_ (_Bungei Shunju_) or carry speculation about PM Hatoyama calling it quits come May (_Shukan Shincho_)

Your take on the Yosano-Hatoyama exchanges, the clouds over Kobayashi Chiyomi etc. are very much looked forward to :-).

Adamu said...

True, they don't seem to be panicking. But that doesn't mean the general pattern of "new PM in October, out by September" has been broken yet. DPJ is almost sure to have a fairly disappointing upper house election, so Hatoyama could face the same torrent of criticism as Abe did in the last UH election.

Adam said...

"For the most part, we are not witnessing the same downward spiral unfold under DPJ rule."

The LDP just won the Nagasaki mayor's seat. It may not be Massachusettes but it still says something. Indeed, today's Asahi places the support level for the Hatoyama cabinet at 37%, with 55% opposing a DPJ majority in the Upper House.

Ozawa does not appear to have broad public appeal, and the LDP strategy appears to concentrate on making Ozawa the public face of the DPJ by keeping his financial shenanigans in the news, although these dealings certainly began in his LPD days. By keeping the party leadership at least partially occupied with Ozawa's problems it prevents them from progressing with the DPJ legislative agenda.

Tobias Harris said...


The LDP's "death spirals" entailed more than just falling public opinion polls and lost elections.

It was how the LDP responded to those setbacks. Polls fall, party elders get more brazen and make pronouncements on what the government should do to save itself, ideological opponents would challenge the government's agenda, which produced further weak poll numbers due to the impression of the government's being out of control, and so on...

I'm not seeing the same pattern.

Now, as for Ozawa, I'm on record saying he should go — and I still think that. But I don't think Ozawa is responsible for stalling the legislative agenda.

buvery said...

Re: Tobias says Ozawa should go

For DPJ, Ozawa can go. He does not have to, right now. Ozawa seems to value victory more than himself, so if he thinks it would be better for the Upper House election, he will resign, just as he did before the lower house election. Besides, no one has better experience than himself to decide when is the best time to do so.

In my opinion, there is no reason other than politics for Ozawa to resign. For example, read an explanation by an accountant:
It is fair to say that CHIKEN is using a subjective interpretation of the law (and accounting method) to politically target DPJ and Ozawa. This is a power struggle between the old power bureaucrats and the new power DPJ politicians.