On Saturday, Yosano Kaoru, onetime contender for the LDP presidency and the Aso cabinet's second finance minister, met with LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu and filed notice that he will leave the party from next week. Sonoda Hiroyuki, Yosano's ally who was forced to resign as a deputy secretary-general last month over criticism of Tanigaki, is expected to follow Yosano out of the party soon.
Both are said to be considering joining up with Hiranuma Takeo, the postal rebel who refused to rejoin the LDP with other erstwhile rebels in 2006. Hiranuma has been talking about forming a conservative party that could serve as a "third pole" in Japanese politics since at least October 2007, in the immediate aftermath of Abe Shinzo's stunning fall from the premiership. After years of hinting at creating a new party, Hiranuma apparently feels that the time is right now, and he will launch his party sometime this month so to prepare to contest this summer's House of Councillors election.
That Hiranuma has waited until now to launch his party suggests to me Hiranuma hopes to fill an electoral niche that does not exist. Where is the demand for another conservative party? Who is clamoring for Hiranuma's third pole? As I've argued before in regard to Hiranuma's quest to build a "true" conservative party, the project is little more than fantasy.
So what of Yosano's unusual alliance with Hiranuma, given that Yosano has been anything but an adherent of the "true" conservatism? No one seems to have a good explanation for it. Sonoda suggested that if they form a new party, it would be close to the LDP in policy terms, in other words, the Hiranuma new party, unlike Watanabe Yoshimi's "neoliberal-ish" Minna no tō, would not be carving out a new niche for itself.
What does Yosano's decision to leave the party mean for the LDP? Following on the heels of Hatoyama Kunio's departure — making Yosano the second Aso cabinet member to leave in under the span of a month — Yosano's departure appears to suggest that exit is growing more attractive to would-be reformers. That's not to say that there aren't LDP members exercising voice. Tanigaki is under relentless pressure from LDP members to initiate sweeping party reforms or get out of the way. This past week a meeting of 50 LDP members met to advocate the dissolution of the factions, to which Tanigaki could only say that if they didn't like factions they didn't have to be in them. Meanwhile, Nakagawa Hidenao criticized the LDP president for failing to stand up for postal privatization in his debate with Prime Minister Hatoyama. And Masuzoe Yoichi continues to be the most vociferous critic of Tanigaki and the LDP executive, castigating the party's leaders for "lacking the will, the ability, and the strategy" necessary to lead the LDP.
But despite the exercise of both exit and voice by LDP reformists, Tanigaki continues to enjoy the support of an inner circle of faction leaders and other party chieftains, at least judging by their silence. Yosano, like Masuzoe, is a maverick, albeit a prominent maverick. Not belonging to any faction, Yosano is if anything best know for his lonely fight in favor of fiscal austerity and open calls for a consumption tax increase, positions that did not earn him a wide following within the LDP. Neither Yosano nor Masuzoe, however, has the numbers to back their actions and force the party's chieftains to act against Tanigaki, at least not before the election.
Both exit and voice in this situation appear to depend on both volume and magnitude: were a faction leader to take his faction out of the party en masse, or to dissolve his faction voluntarily and side with the reformists, those actions might be enough to push the LDP in a new direction. But for now the party is fighting the same battle it has been fighting since Koizumi Junichiro left the premiership. The old guard controls the party, as the reformists, marginalized, struggle to organize and utilize the media as a weapon against the party's leaders. The difference now seems to be that exit has become an increasingly attractive alternative due to public dissatisfaction with both the DPJ and the LDP.
The LDP may yet survive, but it will take lots more voice — or lots more exit — before the party's leaders stand aside and allow the reformists to begin remaking the party so to better compete in a more competitive political environment.