On Thursday, Masuzoe Yoichi, former minister of health, labor, and welfare and the most popular politician in Japan, will inform the LDP that he is exiting the party. On Friday, he will announce the formation of his own party (for now, the Masuzoe New Party), which is projected to have enough members to clear the five-member minimum to be considered a party and be eligible for public election funds. Whether and how many LDP members will follow Masuzoe out remains to be seen, but if Masuzoe has decided to exercise his exit option instead of trying to reform the LDP from within, who among the LDP's reformists will continue to try to force the party's leadership to change its way?
Masuzoe's decision comes after the LDP virtually dared Masuzoe to leave: at a meeting of LDP Diet members last week, several members suggested that if Masuzoe isn't willing to work with the executive he should leave. Similarly, Tanose Ryotaro, head of the LDP's general council, recently questioned Masuzoe's sincerity.
Perhaps one sure consequence of Masuzoe's departure is that it will spell the end of the LDP as an important factor in Japanese politics. The LDP does indeed appear hellbent on its own destruction. Instead of taking Masuzoe's criticisms seriously, the leadership instead goaded the one politician that LDP candidates can stand to be seen with into bolting the party. Just as the LDP quickly turned its back on Koizumi Junichiro's agenda once he left the premiership, the LDP seems determined to reject any politician from within its own ranks who wants to drag the party into the twenty-first century. Now stripped of the interest groups that supported it for so long, the LDP has failed to reinvent itself for the age of floating voters and is rapidly becoming a loose alliance of koenkai. As more politicians leave the party, it becomes harder to imagine that the LDP will ever adapt.
Where does that leave the Japanese political system?
On the whole, it might make the DPJ-led government better. The Masuzoe New Party and Your Party surely stand poised to pick up a decent share of seats in this summer's House of Councillors election. In doing so, they will force the DPJ-led government — assuming that the government does not call a double election, which seems a reasonable assumption after Sengoku Yoshito was roundly criticized for raising the idea — to cobble together a coalition in the upper house in order to pass its legislation (or else governed by the cumbersome Article 59 procedure). Both Masuzoe and Watanabe Yoshimi and his colleagues in the YP are serious about policy, and in Masuzoe's case in particular, he is serious about addressing the social concerns of the Japanese people. Having to negotiate with these two parties may make the policymaking process more unwieldy (counter to the spirit of the government's administrative reforms), but it may result in better policy. And when the government fails to measure up, they will be formidable critics, much more formidable critics than the LDP has been in opposition.
Moreover, as I've argued before, Masuzoe's departure will put pressure on Hatoyama Yukio and Ozawa Ichiro as a DPJ member's threat to exit the party has more power with Masuzoe's party as a destination. That's not to say that the new party will immediately trigger an exodus of DPJ members but it does raise the likelihood that Hatoyama will face a revolt, perhaps from within his own cabinet with the likely failure to solve Futenma by the end of May the convenient excuse for the palace coup. Even if Hatoyama and Ozawa survive until the HC election, a defeat in that election could clear the way for new leaders who will be better able to deliver upon DPJ's reform program.
Replacing the LDP with a motley group of small parties may not seem like an improvement, but with Masuzoe in the mix, that group immediately has stature that it would not otherwise have. Masuzoe is not about to ride a wave of popular support into the premiership, not without a general election being called (and Masuzoe's defection probably makes a snap election even less likely). The DPJ will now face opposition parties that can credibly challenge the DPJ to live up to its own promises for reform.