Showing posts with label Nakagawa Hidenao. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nakagawa Hidenao. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The LDP heads into the wilderness

With less than ten days until the start of the campaign for the LDP's presidency, the field is shrinking, not growing.

Nakagawa Hidenao, who in the immediate aftermath of the general election was convinced that his survival was fate and declared he would contest the election, will not be running in the race after all. His reasoning is that the LDP needs generational change — and it needs a post-factional leader who won a single-member district.

The LDP, however, seems more concerned about who its members should vote for on 16 September when the Diet will pick a new prime minister than who should be charged with the difficult task of remaking the LDP for opposition. Uesugi Takashi reviews the struggle to decide who to vote for for prime minister — initially some wanted to vote for Aso Taro, while others wanted to abstain — and concludes that while the revival of the LDP is "absolutely indispensable for democracy," it looks as if the LDP's revival is "receding into the distance." For the record, the LDP has agreed that it will vote for Wakabayashi Masatoshi, an upper house member who was Abe Shinzo's third and fifth MAFF ministers, as well as Fukuda Yasuo's first. Wakabayashi, it seems, is a man who can be counted on to be pressed into service by his party when it needs to fill a spot.

A group of younger LDP members — twenty-two members from both houses who have been elected seven times or less — calling itself the "Party Rebirth Council" met Wednesday to review the LDP's defeat and to consider how the party can recover. The council plans to have a report ready by the time the new leader is elected. As I have previously suggested, the council will recommend replacing the cumbersome policymaking system and other internal structures that ensured that the LDP itself was a more effective obstacle to policy change than the "opposition" parties. It is good that at least some LDP members are considering how the party needs to be changed, but the choice of leader will be essential, especially because, as Yamamoto Ichita writes, the new leader will presumably contest next year's upper house election, the Hatoyama government's first electoral test. Aso himself has called for unity as the party begins its struggle to return to power, but the LDP, never unified in the first place, will require a leader with the power to force others to obey. In a party with too many leaders and not enough followers — and too many members elected thanks to their name — the next leader will struggle to unify the party, even if the factions are dissolved. (Yamasaki Taku is the latest to call for the dissolution of the factions — seemingly impressive, as Yamasaki is a faction leader despite losing his seat last month, but less impressive considering Yamasaki's history of independent behavior.)

So as much as some younger members claim to desire a change of generation within the party, no one seems particularly willing to step forward into what will likely be an impossible job that could end quickly with a defeat next summer.

They ought to pick someone telegenic: if the DPJ succeeds in changing the policy process as planned, there will be little role for the LDP but to ask meddlesome questions in the Diet, criticize the government in the media, mind the party's internal organization, and wait for the DPJ to become exhausted, corrupt, and incapable of controlling cabinet ministers and backbenchers.

Finally, as a sign of how low the LDP has sunk, Sankei's Komori Yoshihisa has a long blog post in which he tears into the LDP for basically being inadequately conservative (although still better than the "dangerous" DPJ and its policies, which Komori wonders, may not deserve the name "policies"). These are the kind of pressures awaiting the LDP's next leader. Caught between the voters and an agitated conservative media and intelligentsia, between oppositionists and constructivists within the party, the next leader will be set up for failure. It may be a long time before we see a new LDP emerge.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The LDP's first steps towards a new party

A week after the Liberal Democratic Party suffered its first ever electoral defeat, a new party is already taking shape from the ashes.

The biggest change, of course, is the final demise of the factions as a force within the party. As Koike Yuriko said earlier this week upon announcing her departure from the Machimura faction, "The age of the factions is over."

Having already given way to ideological groupings before the election, it is increasingly likely that LDP members will associate more with others sharing their ideas instead of joining factions. Nakagawa Hidenao, an important player in this transition before the election who called for the dissolution of the factions earlier this week, has announced that he will call a meeting of reformists — including Shiozaki Yasuhisa, former chief cabinet secretary — on Monday.

Yamauchi Koichi, a former LDP member who won a PR seat this year for Watanabe Yoshimi's Your Party, has some thoughts about ideological groups within the LDP. One, he says, is the "pure conservative" group of hawks clustered around Aso Taro and Abe Shinzo, about which he says that in their focus upon ideological conflict with the left wing — symbolized by their hatred for Nikkyoso — they will have a difficult time broadening the party's popularity. Another group, led, he says, would be a "liberal" group. Led by Tanigaki Sadakazu, it would resemble the DPJ, with a focus on regions and the creation of a "twentieth-century-style" welfare state. (I'm not quite sure what he means by the label twentieth-century-style.) The third, led by Nakagawa and Shiozaki, is a neo-liberal group, emphasizing small government, administrative reform, economic growth, and free markets. Yamauchi makes clear that he approves of the third as providing the best contrast with the DPJ, which he caricatures as a pork-barreling, big government and twentieth-century-style welfare state-supporting, anti-market, anti-American, anti-globalization political party.

Whatever one thinks as Yamauchi's ideas about which path the LDP should take, his classification scheme is useful. In the forthcoming party election, LDP members will pick one of these courses.

The least coherent is Yamauchi's second group, the "liberal" group. Revealingly, Tanigaki's candidacy for the LDP presidency has the backing of Mori Yoshiro, whose power within the party may have been enhanced by his having narrowly won his single-member district last week — even though Tanigaki does not yet have the support of his own faction, the Koga faction. That Mori would indicate his support for a candidate not from his Machimura faction is a sign of that the power of factions is weakening, but it also suggests that the liberal group is not quite liberal — rather it is the "change as little as possible" group. What, after all, is Mori's ideology? Under the leadership of this group, the LDP's ideological identity would be blurry. While the other two choices would pursue a course of opposing the DPJ at every turn, drawing sharp distinctions between the LDP and the DPJ, the middle group would be a bit more "constructive," answering the government's plans with drafts of its own, perhaps using foreign policy as the issue to separate the two parties.

In short, the LDP's debates are going to resemble the DPJ's debates over the past decade. Should the LDP be "constructivist" or "oppositionist?" The problem for the LDP is that the "oppositionist" line preferred by the conservatives and neo-liberals concedes considerable ground to the DPJ in policy terms, because it means focusing on issues that are less important to the Japanese public than the issues stressed by the DPJ. But this may be a temporary problem.

If the DPJ is successful in power, the oppositionists will be eventually forced to adapt or will be eliminated as the LDP struggles to return to power. Much as the Labour Party became New Labour and the Conservatives have become New Labour-Lite under David Cameron, so the LDP will be forced to become a new LDP that both accepts the changes introduced by a DPJ government and finds a way to critique the DPJ for the inevitable policy failures and corruption scandal that will emerge the longer the party stays in power.

But for now, the oppositionist approach may be the most satisfying as the party tries to reorganize after defeat. I expect that LDP members may be tempted to support a strict oppositionist candidate in this month's presidential election, which would be a natural continuation of the demonization of the DPJ that was central to the party's general election campaign strategy. Will Ishiba Shigeru, a policy wonk trying to position himself as the front runner in the race to replace Aso, be able to tap into the vein of resentment against the DPJ present in large portions of the party?

Ishiba doesn't fit comfortably in any of the aforementioned ideological veins. He is best known as a hawk and a self-described "defense otaku," but he is a defense policy wonk; his hawkishness differs from the cultural hawkishness of Abe and Aso, who view a strong defense more as a cultural imperative than as a "mere" policy matter. He is not particularly well-connected to the neo-liberal group, but he is not particularly traditionalist either. In short, he may be the perfect leader to revive the LDP — if not today, then eventually. He may have a hard time assembling the necessary votes this time around.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The path to a New Liberal Democratic Party

Fresh after barely escaping with his political life, Nakagawa Hidenao — who you will recall failed to unseat Aso Taro as LDP leader in July and then stressed that the DPJ would destroy Japan and had to be stopped — has announced that he wants to stand in the election to succeed Aso as LDP leader.

Nakagawa is nothing if not pugnacious, which might be a good quality to have as leader of the opposition, but by the same token his pugnaciousness has not endeared him to other members of the LDP. And it is unclear whether there are enough members of his so-called "Rising Tide" school to propel him onward to victory, let alone in the party's prefectural chapters. But given the disarray within the LDP, he should have plenty of time to campaign around the country in the hope that he can win on the back of support from the party's grassroots.

Presumably the field will also include Ishiba Shigeru — Ishiba has in fact already indicated that he will run — and Ishihara Nobuteru, both candidates from last year, and possibly upper house member Masuzoe Yoichi. And I expect the field to get even more crowded before too long.

Either of the latter might be better at uniting a broken party, because that, after all, is the primary task facing the party's next leader. I don't just mean broken from the election, but broken at its very core, divided among ideological camps, factions, and policy tribes. The new leader will have to reforge the LDP as a top-down, centralized party. He (or she?) will have to remake the party's institutions, perhaps copying the DPJ by turning the general council into a Next Cabinet, converting the policy research council into a party think tank that depends more on ties to academics and researchers outside government than the bureaucrats upon which the PRC has long depended, and perhaps setting up a troika-style system of collective leadership that will enable to party leadership to push back against backbenchers — no matter how senior — inclined to disregard the party. In the process, the LDP, very much like the DPJ during the early part of this decade, will have to navigate between the options of unflinching resistance to the governing DPJ and "constructive" opposition to the government. How long before commentators begin discussing how the LDP is nothing but an internally divided, pale imitation of the governing DPJ? But such is the nature of two-large-party systems in modern democracies, especially in Europe, although if Nakagawa wins the party leadership the LDP's opposition to the DPJ might be a bit more foam-flecked, like the US Republican Party's opposition to the Obama administration.

The LDP clearly has a path back to power, sooner or later. The faster it gets on with the process of becoming a new model party, the shorter that road will be. I, for one, do not expect the road to be short.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Meet the new LDP

Having fallen 181 seats to 119 seats in the new Diet, the LDP that will face a governing DPJ will be a peculiar party.

What I find most striking is that fifty-five of the LDP's winners are hereditary members, constituting 46.5% of the party's new caucus. By comparison, of the DPJ's 308 winners, only thirty-two (10.4%) are hereditary Diet members. The DPJ majority truly signifies the arrival of fresh blood into the political system, even as the LDP has become even more colored by its political princes. (Of course this outcome makes the LDP's pre-election debate about banning hereditary members look farcical.)

As MTC astutely noted well before the election, how will the LDP's new leaders discipline the party when some many of its members survived by distancing themselves from the party and campaigning on the basis of their name or other personal qualities? As Tanaka Makiko quipped, the Jiminto (LDP) has become a collection of Jibunto (personal parties) even more than it was before the election.

The result, of course, will be greater conflict among the party leaders who survived, all of whom have different visions for how the LDP should act in opposition. Abe Shinzo, naturally seeing the defeat as an opportunity to reinsert himself into the center of the party, suggested that the LDP will press the DPJ hard, although I suspect that will mostly mean criticizing the DPJ from the hard right, which, as the Abe government's 2007 defeat showed, is hardly an effective means of attacking the DPJ.

It may be a bad thing that so many LDP heavyweights survived. Abe, Aso, Fukuda, and Mori all survived, as did Nakagawa Hidenao, who was defeated in his electoral district but revived in PR. The post-election LDP may be cursed with too many leaders and too few followers. That is the significance of the defeat of the Koizumi children, only ten of whom survived (out of seventy-seven). Nakagawa is convinced that his survival through PR was a matter of destiny, and presumably he will be even less reluctant to make his opinions about the party's conduct known. Overall, the LDP may be just as divided, just smaller, with fewer new faces (and new ideas) in the mix. Only five LDP winners are first-timers.

Meanwhile, the factions really may be finished. The Machimura faction, which has dominated the LDP for the past decade, fell from sixty-one to twenty-three seats in the lower house, leaving it with fifty between the two houses. The Tsushima faction fell to one-third of its pre-election strength in the lower house, to fourteen seats, leaving it with thirty-seven between the two. The Koga faction's strength was nearly halved, to twenty-five, leaving it with thirty-four between the two houses. The Nikai faction suffered most, falling to one in the lower house (Nikai himself) and three between the two houses. All are smaller, and of little value to their remaining members.

What lesson will the LDP learn from the DPJ's battle in opposition against the LDP? That saying no can be effective? If that's the lesson the LDP learns, it is in for a long spell in opposition — because the DPJ did not win the support of the Japanese public just by saying no to the LDP, but by saying no and suggesting that the LDP's priorities were completely wrong.

The LDP will have to find a way to win independents: there will be no other way back into power. Exit polls found that more than fifty percent of independents supported the DPJ, certainly a major factor — perhaps the major factor — in the DPJ's victory, although the DPJ also took thirty percent of LDP supporters. (Incidentally, the exit polls also showed that the absence of JCP candidates was another important factor in the DPJ's victory, confirming that the JCP ought to bear some of the blame for prolonging LDP rule.) Inevitably it will win some back as the DPJ disappoints the public, but for the LDP to return as a serious contender for power (that's a weird phrase) at some point the LDP will have to come up with a reason for the voters to take it seriously as a governing party again. It will have to make more than rhetorical gestures in the direction of the issues of greatest concern to the voting public. Having a younger, well-spoken leader could help too. I am increasingly inclined to see Ishihara Nobuteru as the most likely successor to Aso.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How the DPJ can get Japan growing again

Growth or aid, Yomiuri tells us, is the key point of difference between government and opposition manifestos. The LDP wants to promote economic growth, while the DPJ stresses protection for citizens. Sankei says the same regarding Monday's debate among party leaders.

All too often in recent months DPJ leaders have encouraged the idea that the LDP is concerned with growth, while the DPJ cares about livelihoods, as if economic growth has nothing to do with the wellbeing of the Japanese people. Of course, at times the LDP has been overly focused on economic growth: after all, Nakagawa Hidenao's "rising tide" school refers to the idea that a rising tide of economic growth will lift all boats in the economy. (In this blog post, Nakagawa demands that the DPJ state a growth target.) If Japan learned anything this decade, however, it is that growth is not enough. After all, despite Japan's having its longest sustained economic boom for the better part of this decade, all too many Japanese did not experience it as such. But at the same time, the DPJ cannot ignore policies that will promote sustainable economic growth. At the very least, without a growing economy it is difficult to see how the government will meet growing liabilities for social security without severe tax increases.

Accordingly, I have authored a white paper, "Opportunities for a DPJ-led government to achieve sustainable fiscal reform," with Naomi Fink. Naomi is a market practitioner with eleven years of experience in financial institutions. She is currently Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi's Japan Strategist, based in Tokyo. All contributions herein represent her personal opinions and not those of her employer.

Our purpose is to suggest that the DPJ is actually quite well placed to move the Japanese economy in a different direction, but it needs a more focused economic strategy. Its growth strategy contains some good policies, but it is unfocused, barely deserving the label "strategy."

Here is the abstract: "There is significant probability that the upcoming Japanese general election on 30 August will bring a change in government for Japan. In the attached White Paper, Tobias Harris and Naomi Fink examine the political implications of a DPJ leadership, outlining its potential benefits and challenges. Harris and Fink argue that if elected, the DPJ will have significant opportunities to enact positive fiscal and political changes in Japan, then outline policy prescriptions for the DPJ's first year in office, focusing on fiscal reform."

You can read the paper here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The DPJ holds strong in polls

With eight days until the campaign officially begins, the DPJ continues to hold a commanding position in public opinion polls.

A recent Sankei/FNN poll found that the DPJ's approval rating as a party increased three points to 31%, compared with the LDP's 22%, the DPJ is the party of choice in PR voting for 44.6% of respondents compared to 25.4% of respondents who favor the LDP, and support for Hatoyama as prime minister is more than double support for Aso (44.8% to 20.5%). The public's issues of concern also favor the DPJ: 30.8% said social security, 20.1% said recession countermeasures, and 15% said "regime change." That regime change — the DPJ's much-derided slogan — polled ahead of foreign policy, the LDP's issue of choice, is revealing. And for those placing their hopes in Your Party, you have little company: 65.3% of respondents said they are not placing their hopes in parties and groups formed just before the election, compared with 28.5% who are. The same proportion of respondents, however, expects a post-election realignment, something that seems less likely the better the DPJ does.

A recent Yomiuri poll found fairly similar results. The support for parties is roughly similar (31.6% to 24.2%). Hatoyama is preferred by 46.5% of respondents, compared with 22.1% for Aso. In a question asking who respondents will vote for in single-member districts, the DPJ leads 39.1% to 24.3%, and it leads by 40.7% to 23.5% in PR block voting. Undecideds are 20% and 16.3% respectively. In other words, it may be the case that voters are beginning to make up their minds, before the country goes on holiday this week.

The one ray of hope for the LDP — as noted by Nakagawa Hidenao — is that the public is relatively unenthusiastic about a DPJ-led government compared to other alternatives. 24% favor a DPJ-led government compared with 26.9% who favor a grand coalition and 30.4% who favor a realignment. Nakagawa conveniently neglects to mention in his enthusiasm for the finding that 76% of respondents don't favor a DPJ-led government that 89% of respondents do not favor an LDP-centered government. I'm not sure how much stock to put in this question anyway. Given that a grand coalition or a political realignment are not necessarily on offer, the public has no choice but to pick between a DPJ-led government and an LDP-led government — and the rest of the poll makes very clear where the public's sentiments lie.

There is time for this situation to change: by campaigning on the basis of fear, the LDP is in effect planting seeds of doubt in the hope that if they're nurtured over the coming weeks, the DPJ's support will erode. It may yet work, although the LDP is running out of time.

The reason, however, for not reading too much into these polls is that they simply say nothing about the DPJ's support in particular areas of the country where it needs to do well (Kyushu, Shikoku, Chugoku, etc.). Is DPJ support in those areas consistent with the national figures?

Nevertheless, for what it's worth, the general election remains the DPJ's to lose, and despite my concerns of last week, there are few signs that the party's lead is eroding.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nakagawa Hidenao fights to the bitter end

In response to the LDP's decision to convene a closed-door gathering Tuesday that will enable LDP members to "exchange opinions" with Prime Minister Aso Taro, Nakagawa Hidenao demanded that the party open the event to the media.

The LDP executive dismissed his request, frankly arguing that airing the party's dirty laundry — more than it has already been aired — will have a negative impact on the party's performance in the general election.

Yamamoto Ichita defends his party's decision here, suggesting that there is little reason for the LDP to publicize what will likely be a brutal last-minute struggle between defenders and critics of the prime minister, pleasing no one but the media.

Normally I would oppose a decision to limit the transparency of the governing party, but at this point media coverage of the event would only be piling on, giving the media an opportunity for a feeding frenzy but doing nothing to inform the public. The LDP's divisions are no secret; the damage has already been done. To make Tuesday's discussion meeting public would serve only to provide the media with images of Aso's being lambasted by party members. The LDP has no obligation to make such an event public and its political logic is certainly sound.

Meanwhile, Nakagawa's push to make the event public is just one more act of desperation by a once-prominent LDP member who appears to have run out of options. With the discussion's occurring behind closed doors, Nakagawa's campaign to overthrow Aso will have reached its conclusion — having the public witness Aso's self-criticism session is Nakagawa's only chance to keep the flame of resistance burning.

But Nakagawa continues to insist that he will not leave the LDP, that he would rather work to reform the LDP than leave to form his own party or, given his recent tirades against the DPJ, join the DPJ. (The latest one is here.) Whether the party is interested in his efforts to reform it is another question. Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, said on TV Saturday that if Nakagawa and Takebe Tsutomu want to make their own manifesto, they ought to leave the LDP. Other LDP members have taken to the airwaves to reminder the public that Nakagawa was the party secretary-general who was "responsible" for the 2007 upper house election. Mori Yoshiro — apparently with no modesty himself despite having come close to setting the mark for the LDP's least popular leader ever — suggested that given his "prior conviction," Nakagawa should be more modest in his speech. Oshima Tadamori similarly reminded listeners at a speech in Iwate prefecture of Nakagawa's history. This reasoning is clearly specious: Nakagawa may have resigned to take responsibility, but the idea that Nakagawa is somehow truly responsible for the party's defeat is absurd.

But I understand the criticism being directed at Nakagawa. At this point Nakagawa looks more like a saboteur than a sincere reformer. Having lost his battle to unseat the prime minister and losing the battle to influence the party's manifesto, Nakagawa would fall into line if he were sincere about staying in the party. The damage has already been done. Nakagawa has managed to demolish the illusion — such as it existed — that the LDP is capable of governing itself or Japan. "The LDP," said Kan Naoto, "is completely losing its ability to govern." The DPJ will undoubtedly be repeating this message ad nauseam until the election, making the LDP's decision to shield Tuesday's meeting from the press politically obvious: why furnish the opposition with photographic and video evidence of the party's disunity?

Meanwhile, the anti-Aso opposition is in total disarray. Noda Seiko and Koike Yuriko, leading reformists, are now fighting not just over whether to form a new party but whether Noda called upon Koike to join her in forming a new party.

However, the reformists, for all their disarray over the past three years, may have completed Koizumi Junichiro's mission of "destroying the LDP." Aso is battered (in Mainichi's latest poll Hatoyama Yukio enjoys 28% support as the most appropriate choice for prime minister, compared with only 11% for Aso), the party's reputation is in tatters (Mainichi has the DPJ as the party of choice for 56% of respondents, double the LDP's proportion), and Yomiuri is finding that even prominent and long-serving of LDP members are having to campaign hard in their districts (a three-part series, here, here, and here). The race may tighten up a bit as the LDP puts the Nakagawa rebellion behind it, but barring some extraordinary political financing scandal that directly implicates Hatoyama, the DPJ is likely cruising to victory. The interesting question now is just how big a victory.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Aso will fight on

The anti-Asō rebellion was over before it even began.

Instead of a meeting of LDP Diet members that would meet today and debate whether to hold a party presidential election before a general election — thereby undoing the prime minister's plan for a 21 July dissolution — the LDP executive agreed to an informal, closed gathering of Diet members that will meet for two hours before the House of Representatives is dissolved on Tuesday. The party leaders claimed that Nakagawa Hidenao's petition fell short of the necessary 128 signatures to force a general meeting. Asō Tarō will attend, to "listen" to the opinions of LDP members. Presumably he will be apologetic for the party's electoral defeats and promise to try harder in the coming weeks, giving the meeting the air of a self-criticism session. (Hence its being held behind closed doors, as suggested by Yamamoto Ichita.) Then he will walk from LDP headquarters down the street to the Kokkai — a victory strut of sorts? — and dissolve the lower house as planned.

The opposition has not folded entirely, but it has been deflated considerably. After urging the prime minister to resign, Yosano Kaoru, the finance minister, declared that he is satisfied with the decision to convene an informal meeting. Ishiba Shigeru, the agriculture minister, similarly voiced his support for the prime minister, and like Yosano argued that the meeting will be an important first step for the party to unite under Asō.

The leaders of the movement now have to decide what to do next. Do they leave the party? Form a new party? Genuflect before Asō and the party leadership and promise to campaign hard for the LDP? Develop a separate manifesto while remaining under the LDP banner? Hatoyama Kunio, after having been unceremoniously dumped from the cabinet by the prime minister he had long stood by, now rivals Nakagawa as the prime minister's fiercest critic. At a press conference Friday, he spoke of forming an independent "group" within the LDP and said he would gladly form a new party if ordered to leave. (In other words: "You can't throw me out, I quit!")

Meanwhile, Nakagawa tried to resubmit the petition Friday but was rejected — and then disparaged the party's "compromise" as the worst possible outcome. He has given no hint to his plans. Kato Koichi, who in recent weeks emerged as a key Nakagawa ally, appears to have let Nakagawa do the talking, but I suspect that Kato is not long for the party anyway.

Takebe Tsutomu, no less outspoken in his opposition to the government, was explicitly told to leave the party by Oshima Tadamori.

Watanabe Yoshimi is eagerly waiting to welcome LDP exiles to his yet-to-be-named party, which is set to be born after the Diet is dissolved. Watanabe has reportedly been in discussions with Hatoyama Kunio and Hiranuma Takeo, the latter of whom is in the process of creating his long-discussed conservative party. An alliance is not necessarily in the works, although were the two to link up, it would basically result in an Abe-ist party. After watching the opposition to Asō fold over recent days, however, it is hard to see how many LDP members will leave to join either Watanabe or Hiranuma. Some might — Takebe, for example — but few seem to have the fortitude showed by Nagasaki Kotaro, who upped and left at the start of this week. It seems that candidates concerned about running under Asō's leadership will simply do the best they can to distance themselves from the prime minister without leaving the party.

As for Nakagawa, it is appropriate that onetime rebel Kato ("the ghost of rebellions past") became Nakagawa's ally in his fight against Asō, because Kato's present may be Nakagawa's future. Nakagawa has spent so much energy on trying to change the LDP and seems incapable of leaving the party. It's possible that he will remain in the party, isolated, another man who could have been king (or at least could have taken down the king).

And in the meantime, the LDP marches to what looks like certain defeat under its battered leader.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Is the Nakagawa rebellion fizzling out already?

After loudly proclaiming that he had received enough signatures to force a meeting of LDP Diet members within in the next week, it turns out that Nakagawa Hidenao's campaign to unseat Asō Tarō is falling victim to the pusillanimity of his "supporters."

Some of the 133 signatories have claimed that they did not sign in the hope of unseating the prime minister but merely in the hope that it would force Asō to reflect on the party's defeats in local elections and resolve to work harder in advance of the general election. It seems that members of the Tsushima and Koga factions in particular are looking to remove their signatures from the petition. (Yamamoto Ichita has more on this here.)

What a sorry excuse for a rebellion, and a testament to Nakagawa's deficiencies as leader of the LDP's reformist anti-mainstream.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The LDP in ruins

On Wednesday, Nakagawa Hidenao announced that the movement to move up the LDP presidential election from September — in effect a campaign for a recall election aimed at Prime Minister Asō Tarō — reached its goal of signatures from more than one-third of LDP members in the upper and lower houses (one-third is 128 members). Among the 133 signatures received are those of two members of the Asō cabinet, Yosano Kaoru, the finance minister, and Ishiba Shigeru, the agriculture minister.

The rebels are urging the LDP executive to convene a general meeting of LDP members from both houses — and with Asō determined to dissolve the Diet Tuesday, they are running out of time.

Having one-third of the Diet caucus is sufficient to force a general meeting, but whether they will be able to secure a majority of Diet members plus the heads of the forty-seven prefectural chapters remains to be seen. But that said, this group includes more than just the Koizumi children, although they are certainly in the mix. There are enough signatories with cabinet experience and longevity that Asō and his allies cannot simply ignore them. (The complete list is available here.) There is certainly a reformist "color" to the list, but it is not necessarily a group of Nakagawa's compatriots. I would imagine a number of the signatories are there because they simply fear for the future of the party, not because they accept Nakagawa's ideological program. In other words, this group is not the beginning of a new reformist party.

This group, and Nakagawa in particular, is convinced that the LDP can be saved by throwing Asō overboard, indeed that the prime minister is the only thing standing in the way of LDP victory. As I argued here, I think Nakagawa's position assigns far too much blame to Asō for what is essentially a structural problem in the LDP. After going through three prime ministers in three years, it is hard to believe that the problem is simply having the wrong people at the head of the party. After watching the LDP's members war with one another simply to remove Asō, will the public be convinced that the LDP is a whole new party? If the party manages to unseat the prime minister and elevate, for example, Masuzoe Yoichi in his place, will the party instantly become more manageable? (Motegi Toshimitsu, a former administrative reform minister, and Sugawara Isshu, the LDP's deputy secretary general, met with Masuzoe Wednesday evening to urge him to run in the event that Asō falls from power.) Masuzoe's position would be particularly difficult given that he would be the first postwar prime minister from the upper house and has always prided himself on being independent from party (great as a crusading minister, bad in a party leader). He might be able to save the LDP in a general election, but when it came to governing he would presumably get ensnared by the same problems that have undermined previous LDP prime ministers.

At this juncture, however, Yosano has emerged as a key figure in determining not only whether Asō will survive, but also whether the prime minister will be able to go forward with a dissolution and general election as planned. Yomiuri reports that the finance minister met with the prime minister for forty minutes on Wednesday and urged him to resign voluntarily. Yosano also hinted that he might not sign the declaration dissolving the House of Representatives and stressed that the party leaders must listen to dissenting voices in determining how to proceed. Despite his long-running battle with Nakagawa — the war of Nakagawa's "rising tide" school versus Yosano's "fiscal reconstructionists" — Yosano is now a critical ally for Nakagawa inside the cabinet, seeing as how the reformists do not have one of their own in the government. But even Yosano cannot stop the dissolution, as the prime minister can dismiss him and assume his position if Yosano refuses to sign the order.

The battle is building to a climax. There will presumably be a meeting of LDP Diet members, if only to vote down the proposal. That would probably be the best outcome for Asō, given that he probably has the votes. Mori Yoshiro spoke of making a decision about a "recall" election on the basis of the opinion of all members, a reminder that two-thirds of the party's members did not sign the petition. And Asō has the upper hand, in that he only has to hold out until Tuesday and then he can dissolve the Diet, even if he has to dismiss members of his cabinet to do so.

On Thursday, Takebe Tsutomu likened the current situation to the bakumatsu, the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1850s and 1860s. He may be right, but he should remember that it takes more than one group to produce political chaos. The Asō cabinet may be tottering and feeble, but the reaction it has engendered from within the LDP has mortally wounded the government, worsening the conditions that inspired the reaction in the first place. If the rebels fail — and it looks like they will, because Asō is nothing if not stubborn — they will have guaranteed the outcome they sought to avoid: the disastrous defeat of the LDP and the formation of a DPJ government.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The LDP's disorder deepens, but it remains one party — for now

Asō Tarō's decision to dissolve the Diet on 21 July and hold a general election on 30 August rippled through the LDP on Tuesday, as the prime minister's critics increasingly recognized that with the political system shifting into election mode, the window of opportunity to replace Asō is closing.

Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō, whose position was directly undermined by Sunday's Tokyo assembly election results, was bitterly dismissive of the prime minister, labeling the decision as intended solely to shield Asō from criticism within the LDP, criticism that he added to by reminding reporters of the prime minister's struggles with kanji and his indecisiveness.

But while Ishihara's comments can be dismissed as bitterness from one unpopular leader trying to shift his share of the blame for Sunday's defeat to another unpopular leader, Asō faced more severe criticism from within the LDP on Tuesday. The conference of LDP members of both houses of the Diet met Tuesday, giving Asō's rivals an opportunity to criticize him to his face.

The man of the afternoon was Nakagawa Hidenao, the leader of the LDP's reformists and who at this moment has considerable power over the LDP's future.

Not surprisingly Nakagawa was angry about Asō's decision to react to the Tokyo election by calling an "early" election instead resigning. He wrote at his blog on Monday that the Japanese people had already rendered their judgment on Asō's leadership in local and prefectural elections in Shizuoka, Tokyo, Chiba, and Nara, and reiterated his argument that the only "honorable" course of action for the prime minister is resignation. In short, Nakagawa's argument is the polar opposite of the government's argument that local elections have no bearing whatsoever on national elections — local elections are explicitly judgments about the government.

On Tuesday Nakagawa rejected Asō's appeal for unity and once again demanded the prime minister's resignation, arguing that only the DPJ will benefit from an early election with Asō as the LDP leader.

Nakagawa was not alone in his criticism of Asō. Takebe Tsutomu, former LDP secretary general and Koizumi lieutenant, suggested that the prime minister acted "arbitrarily" in scheduling the election from 30 August instead of some date following the 10 September end of the Diet term.

The bitterness of the criticism from the senior reformists is an admission that they were outmaneuvered by Asō, who acted decisively for perhaps the first time since becoming prime minister, securing his position and placating his backers by scheduling an "early" dissolution followed by a long period before the election campaign officially begins on 18 August. [Readers will notice the quotes around early throughout this article, by which I am simply suggesting that early is relative: as far as I'm concerned this election should have been held months ago.] It is now highly unlikely that the LDP will oust Asō before the general election, despite Nakagawa's calls for his resignation.

It is beginning to occur to some LDP reformists just how isolated they are within the party. Yamauchi Koichi, a first-termer from Kanagawa, writes at his blog: "In the LDP, the structural reform group, which wants to build smart government that entrusts to the private sector that which the private sector can do, demolish the administrative corporations, cut the number of bureaucrats, and eliminate government waste, has become the minority group before we were even aware of it." (Why exactly did it take them so long to notice that they had become the LDP's new anti-mainstream? There were plenty of warning signs well before Asō set foot in the Kantei as prime minister, although for the first year after Koizumi Nakagawa Hidenao was too busy claiming that the Abe government was reforming "faster than in Koizumi-san's time" to notice that the LDP was reverting to form before their very eyes.)

Yamauchi's post is interesting as it shows a Koizumi child waking up to the predicament facing the reformists: "I'm afraid to say that it appears that both the LDP and the DPJ are at the point of 'Anti-Koizumi Structural Reform' and their thinking is converging in a similar way(?)." What's a reformist to do? Risk electoral defeat as a candidate for a party that has marginalized you and your peers? Join the DPJ, a party that rhetoric has it is no different from the LDP? Join with Watanabe Yoshimi in the hope that his nascent party might become the beginning of a powerful neo-liberal party?

In his futile campaign against the prime minister, Nakagawa Hidenao has been a poor leader for his fellow reformists. After all, as Nakagawa should himself recognize, the LDP's problems are more than skin deep. Why does he think that simply changing the face of the party will be adequate to revive the LDP's fortunes? Obviously he wants more than a change of leaders, but in the time to an election a change of leaders will be merely cosmetic and will ask voters to excuse the LDP's past and look to a brighter future under the new leader, assuming that the new leader can make the changes desired by Nakagawa. But the Koizumi experience suggests that changing leaders only takes the LDP so far. And does anyone see another Koizumi waiting in the LDP's wings anyway? (Yamamoto Ichita, another leading reformist, offers more criticism of Nakagawa's position here.)

The result is that it looks like it will be every reformist for him or herself: it appears unlikely that the reformists will leave the party en masse. Some will probably leave and join with Watanabe; perhaps others will stay and fight for the soul of the LDP; still others may soften their views. But I have a hard time seeing a repeat of 1993 when Ozawa Ichiro pulled his reformist faction out of the party as a group. It is wholly unclear which option Nakagawa will choose, which speaks volumes about Nakagawa as a leader of the reformists. The longer Nakagawa waits to make his intentions clear the more it looks like the same indecision that Asō is criticized for instead of wily gamesmanship.

Nakagawa's predicament comes through in this post at his blog Tuesday, in which he writes hysterically of his "mission to strive to the bitter end to prevent the birth of a DPJ government," a government he believes will utterly betray Japan's national interests. Rarely have I read something as unhinged as Nakagawa's anti-DPJ screed. He is convinced that the DPJ will ruin Japan (presumably more than it has already been ruined by the LDP?) — if this post does not rule out the possibility of Nakagawa's leading reformists into the DPJ, I don't know what does. Nakagawa is equally devastated by the LDP's failure to realize that it is imperative for to do whatever it takes to prevent the DPJ from taking power. But he offers no clue as to what he will do to "work vigorously on behalf of nation and people."

With the LDP's having successfully warned off reformists who might have been tempted to use the opposition's no-confidence motion to tweak the government — the LDP informed members that the party would withdraw its endorsement if they voted for the motion — but the day of reckoning is approaching. Or, given the confusion among the reformists, the days of reckoning.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The LDP has exhausted its credit with the Japanese people

Asō Tarō and the LDP failed in the first of two electoral challenges that will precede the dissolution of the House of Representatives and the forthcoming general election.

Kawakatsu Heita, the DPJ-backed candidate in the Shizuoka gubernatorial election, defeated Sakamoto Yukiko, the LDP- and Komeitō-backed candidate, on Sunday, this despite a split in the DPJ vote in Shizuoka. The DPJ, of course, feels the wind at its back as it looks to Sunday's Tokyo assembly elections. Polls in advance of the Tokyo vote show that the DPJ may well succeed in becoming the largest party in the Tokyo assembly. Mainichi has the DPJ leading the LDP 26% to 13%, another 6% for Komeitō, and 43% undecided. But 55% of respondents said they would consider using their vote to judge the Asō government, which provides a hint to how those 43% might vote Sunday. Yomiuri finds that the DPJ enjoys a similar lead over the LDP, 29.4% to 16.9%, with another 5.1% for Komeitō. Asahi's poll also found undecideds leaning to the DPJ.

The DPJ has every reason to feel that its time has come.

Meanwhile, Asō, in Yomiuri's words, stands at the edge of a cliff. The prime minister, reacting to the news, said that the Shizuoka defeat does not mean that the LDP will lose in Tokyo Sunday — and once again stressed that regional elections have no import for national politics. The Shizuoka branch of the LDP thinks differently, blaming the defeat on the anti-government mood growing throughout Japan. What will be his excuse if the LDP and Komeitō lose Sunday? How many regional elections does the government have to lose before it has an impact on national politics? How many times do the voters have to opt for DPJ-backed candidates before the government will recognize these votes as directed at the LDP-Komeitō coalition? Perhaps Asō's excuse for an LDP defeat in Tokyo will be on account of his absence from the campaign trail, as he is now in Italy for the G8. (Although, come to think of it, his absence may give a bump to LDP candidates...)

We are, blow by blow, witnessing the end of LDP rule. The truce that was supposedly declared between the reformists and the traditionalists was remarkably short-lived: Nakagawa Hidenao was on TV Sunday calling once again for Asō's resignation. Resigning, Nakagawa maintains, is the honorable thing to do. Honor? What honor is there for the LDP in pushing Asō out of the way and elevating a new leader just in time to contest an election?

I think that Nakagawa and the reformists are increasingly beginning to recognize the position they are in: even with a change of leader their position within the LDP is likely to be greatly diminished. There are simply too many Koizumi children holding vulnerable seats (and often facing the DPJ candidates they bested in 2005, meaning that they are facing experienced challengers.) If they manage to influence the drafting to the manifesto, however, and the LDP manages to somehow scratch out a victory, the manifesto becomes a means to hold the LDP leadership accountable, even if the leadership does not come from the ranks of the reformists.

But more than that, the reformists are facing a situation in which they will lack bargaining power with the DPJ should they decide to leave the LDP after the election. If the DPJ wins a majority, it will have little need for LDP defectors. It presumably won't spurn them if they want to join the DPJ, but the defectors won't receive any special treatment from the DPJ. (I can imagine, though, that some DPJ members would be particularly reluctant to let a raft of LDP defectors join the party, thereby strengthening the Maehara group.)

Accordingly, it makes good political sense for the reformists to do what they can to improve the LDP's chances in the general election. Even if the LDP doesn't win, a better-than-expected LDP performance that deprives the DPJ of a majority gives the reformists bargaining power in case they decide to break loose from the LDP. I don't doubt that the reformists think they are sincere about changing the LDP, but how long will they continue to fight a losing struggle within the party? To what extent will they join with LDP members like Yosano Kaoru, who criticized the DPJ's manifesto as "virtually criminal" in its neglect of reality? If the reformists go to far in their criticism of the DPJ — and Nakagawa has certainly strayed in this direction already — they will make it that much harder to join the DPJ should they find the LDP inhospitable after an election.

But I think it is time for the reformists to drop the pretense that the way to change Japan is to change the LDP. Maybe Koizumi had it backwards: change Japan, change the LDP. In other words, it may take another party — for now the DPJ — to implement the political, economic, and administrative reforms that the LDP failed to enact, and in doing so the LDP will change as well in response to the new political environment.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Circling the drain

The dissolution of the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Asō Tarō tells us, is not far off.

It cannot come soon enough. Each day brings more news of Asō's loosening grasp on his own party. Yomiuri reports that from Monday, the effort to replace the prime minister will take on a new urgency. The movement to move up the LDP presidential election is growing apace, becoming the latest cause of the LDP's reformists, who seem to think that one final change of leadership will be able to make up for three years of backsliding on reform. In addition to Yamamoto Taku, the lower house member circulating a petition on the election, Takebe Tsutomu, onetime Koizumi lieutenant, is also calling for an early party election, suggesting that Koike Yuriko or Masuzoe Yoichi would make fine choices for a new party leader and prime minister. Nakagawa Hidenao has suggested that if Asō does the "honorable" thing and resigns, LDP rule can continue. Tanahashi Yasufumi, who as a forty-one-year-old third-term Diet member became a cabinet minister holding special portfolios for science and technology and food safety under Koizumi, has openly called for the prime minister's resignation.

It is difficult to see what this campaign against Asō will accomplish other than accelerating the LDP's decline and perhaps forcing Asō into accelerating the lower house dissolution and a general election. The prime minister, after all, still has a nuclear option in the form of the right of dissolution, and to use it would deal a mortal blow to efforts to unseat him. If it would be farcical to replace Asō now, on the eve of a dissolution, it would be even more insulting to the intelligence of the Japanese public to replace Asō once the clock started ticking from the dissolution to a general election. To change leaders now would be an insult, sending a simple message to the public: pay no attention to the mishaps of the three LDP leaders who followed Koizumi and look to the bright future under (insert name of flashy new leader here).

At this point it would be no less insulting for Asō to reshuffle the LDP leadership to change the faces who will be seen on the campaign trail along with the prime minister. But along with his power over the timing of the general election the power to pick his cabinet and party leaders is just about all that Asō has left, and so it seems possible that he will use this last remaining tool to shake up the LDP. Yamamoto Ichita alludes to rumors that the PM might name Masuzoe chief cabinet secretary — in other words, giving Masuzoe responsibility for the election campaign, which would ensure that one of the few remaining popular LDP members would go before the public across the country.

Nevertheless, it is getting difficult to think of new metaphors and similes to illustrate just how desperate the LDP's situation is as June comes to a close. It is difficult to see a pathway to victory for the LDP barring some enormous scandal that implicates much of the DPJ — and even then, the election would presumably be closely contested. For all their good intentions, the reformists appear to have ensured that the LDP will be stuck with Asō, who now, thanks to their campaign to remove him, looks largely powerless as prime minister and party leader.

But not wholly powerless, as it looks like he will exercise his ultimate power. Asō has met with LDP and Komeitō leaders in recent days, and Sankei suggests that an early August election is most likely. According to Oshima Tadamori, the LDP's kokutai chairman, Asō has a final choice to make: whether to dissolve the Diet before he goes to Italy for the G8 summit on July 8 (and before the Tokyo assembly election on July 12) or whether to wait until after the Tokyo election. The choice will make little difference for the outcome – although Asō may enjoy Italy more if he waits until after his return to dissolve the Diet and call an election.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The DPJ faces the bureaucracy

With the DPJ's prospects on the rise and the LDP mired in what may be terminal disarray, the DPJ is receiving greater scrutiny when it comes to how the party will govern should it take power.

That, after all, is what this election is about: if seiken kotai [regime change], the DPJ's longtime mantra is to have any meaning, the DPJ must be prepared to change how Japan is governed. A change of government must be more than a change of the name of the party wielding Japan's shambolic administrative machinery.

To this end, the DPJ's Kan Naoto opted for an observation tour in Britain. Kan was in Britain for six days, where he met with officials from government and opposition parties to discuss power transitions and relations between politicians and bureaucrats. (Although if the DPJ is going to look to Britain for lessons, can someone please send a box set of Yes Minister to Mr. Kan and company?)

It is revealing that Kan went to Britain because in effect the DPJ hopes to transform Japan's "Un-Westminster" system into a proper Westminster system, with power concentrated in the cabinet at the expense of the governing party and bureaucracy. The vaunted administrative reforms implemented under Prime Ministers Hashimoto and Koizumi served more to strengthen the Kantei as a pillar competing with the LDP and the bureaucracy in the policymaking process than to turn the cabinet and the prime minister's office into a proper Westminster-style executive. The DPJ's hope — and its primary mission — is to concentrate power in the cabinet, declawing its own policymaking organs and forcing the bureaucracy to bend to the will of the duly elected government. Because the DPJ's policymaking organs are underdeveloped compared to the LDP's Policy Research Council, policy zoku, and other mechanisms for LDP backbenchers to intervene in the policymaking process, to effect regime change a DPJ-led government will obviously be forced to confront the bureaucracy. (Although the DPJ has thought ahead about how to prevent its policymaking council from becoming a power base independent of the government: the DPJ plans to have its head serve concurrently as chief cabinet secretary. Naturally the need for coalition partners could complicate this effort considerably.)

The DPJ has plenty of ideas for confronting the bureaucracy, many of which are spelled out by Kan in detail in the July issue of Chūō Kōron. But the sum of these ideas is a scheme to destroy the customary practices that have given the bureaucracy its power, most notably the customs of allowing the bureaucracy to wield the power of personnel appointment delegated to the cabinet and respecting the decisions reached in the conference of administrative vice ministers. Perhaps it would be easier to change Japan's administration if the bureaucracy's powers were written into law. Changing customs can be more challenging, entailing a protracted war of words between the DPJ and the bureaucracy played out in the media. The bureaucracy's goal is akin to the LDP's goal: create a public image of the DPJ as an irresponsible party incapable of acting on behalf of the Japanese people. The media will be the primary arena for the battle between the bureaucracy and a DPJ-led government, but there will be other tools at the bureaucracy's disposal. Bureaucrats may be able to use back channel connections to former bureaucrats in the DPJ in an attempt to sow dissent within the DPJ. Bureaucrats could leak information to the LDP in opposition to undermine or embarrass the government. We should expect that the bureaucracy will do whatever necessary to defend its prerogatives.

The war has already started. Ichide Michio, administrative vice minister for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, questioned the DPJ's plans for income support for agricultural households as "unrealistic" at a press conference, a clear case of political intervention by a supposedly politically neutral public official. Hatoyama Yukio responded to Ichide's remarks by suggesting that in Britain "he would be sacked." Sasayama Tatsuo shows that Ichide was responding to leading questions from reporters, a mitigating circumstance certainly, but this episode shows what we should expect from the media should the DPJ take power — and more importantly, in the months leading up to the general election.

Admittedly I should not be so quick to speak of the "media" and the "bureaucracy" as monolithic entities. Indeed, success or failure for the DPJ will depend on the extent to which the DPJ is able to sow dissent among bureaucrats, to find and support officials sympathetic to the party's plans. But the point remains that the central task for a DPJ-led government will be engineering a dramatic shift in how power is executed in the policymaking process, a shift conceived by Kan as from "bureaucratic cabinet/centralized government" to "parliamentary cabinet/decentralized government" (the centralization dimension referring to the relationship between the center and the periphery in Japan as a whole).

What the DPJ should not do is compare this task to the two previous great reforms, the Meiji-era reforms and the Occupation-era reforms. The DPJ is simply incapable of delivering reform on that scale, not because it is the DPJ but because it is a party in a functioning parliamentary system. Consider the circumstances during which the great reforms occurred. The first followed an internal, top-down revolution that enabled the new ruling elites to redraw Japanese institutions as they saw fit. The second set of reforms followed catastrophic defeat and was the product of an external, top-down revolution. In both cases there was a blank slate, or at least as blank a slate as possible in human affairs. Reform was largely extra-parliamentary — and as a result, opposition to reform was extra-parliamentary, isolated from power and easily repressed or ignored.

Needless to say, the DPJ will not enjoy the same freedom. It will face considerable legitimate opposition, within the Diet from an LDP that will likely find its voice in opposition and even from members of the coalition government that will likely emerge from the government (even if the DPJ wins a simple majority due to the need to keep its upper house partners involved). It will face opposition from prefectural governors, mayors, prefectural and local assembly members, NPOs, industry groups, and unions. Sooner or later it will face opposition from a considerable portion of the public. And while the bureaucracy may not be elected, its members are certainly participants in the political process. Accordingly, the less grandiose the DPJ is regarding what it hopes to achieve through administrative reform, the less vituperative the party is in its rhetoric regarding the bureaucracy, the more effective the DPJ will be should it take power.

I applaud Kan's efforts to move the DPJ away from harsh, anti-bureaucracy rhetoric that will make it more difficult to work with the bureaucracy. At a press conference last week Kan stressed that the DPJ is not against the bureaucracy, that it recognizes that it needs to make use of the experience and intelligence of Japan's bureaucrats. The DPJ, he said, stands for "post-bureaucratic politics, not anti-bureaucratic politics." Nakagawa Hidenao, Schmittian in his desire for political enemies, dubbed Kan's remarks as heretical to the cause of administrative reform, a sign that the DPJ does not have the stomach to tackle the challenge. But Nakagawa has it precisely wrong. The existence of a strong, entrenched bureaucracy is a fact of life for any Japanese government. Demonizing the bureaucracy accomplishes nothing. As a party with no experience in governing the DPJ will be especially dependent on the bureaucracy.

Does that mean that there is no hope for administrative reform? Hardly. In looking to unify cabinet and party, the DPJ has sought to learn from the LDP's mistakes: bureaucratic rule has been harmful precisely because the LDP did little to prevent collusion between backbenchers and bureaucrats, which prevented the government from speaking with a single voice and enabled backbenchers to misappropriate enormous sums of public funds. A DPJ victory would be a positive development for precisely this reason, as it would represent an opportunity to create a system in which elected representatives serving as prime minister and cabinet ministers could determine national priorities and direct the administrative machinery accordingly, confident that their work would not be undermined by backbenchers following their own agendas. The task, in short, is to establish a clear division of labor between politicians and bureaucrats, making politicians accountable for setting national priorities and drafting legislation, and making the bureaucracy responsible for implementing the public's will as embodied in legislation.

LDP rule has effectively erased this line. The challenge for a DPJ-led government will be to restore it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

These are the hollow men

"Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion" — T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

The belabored departure of Hatoyama Kunio — captured well with a quote from a more contemporary poet at Shisaku — and now the third straight defeat of an LDP candidate in a prominent mayoral election suggest that what little remained of the LDP's 2005 mandate is in tatters. Kumagai Toshihito, the thirty-one-year-old DPJ-backed candidate, won the Chiba City mayoral election Sunday, making him Japan's youngest mayor. Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, dismissed the election as having no influence on national politics, which may be true in a technical sense, but the DPJ's third straight mayoral campaign victory reinforces the image that the DPJ has recovered from the Ozawa scandal and that the LDP is in disarray and hemorrhaging electoral support.

Public opinion polls, after briefly recording an uptick in the LDP's fortunes, once again show that the public has grown weary of the Asō government and the LDP-Komeitō coalition. In a Mainichi poll conducted over the weekend, the cabinet's approval rating fell five points to 19%. When asked which party they want to win in this year's general election, respondents overwhelmingly favored the DPJ, 53% to 27%. And Hatoyama Yukio, while trailing "none of the above," which received 46% support, is the favored candidate for prime minister for 32% of respondents compared to Asō's 15%: the prime minister's support fell six points since last month.

The LDP is once again in full-blown panic mode — hence the Eliot quote above. As the LDP scrambles to respond to its latest setbacks while simultaneously preparing for a general election, "paralysed force" strikes me as a particularly apt description of the Asō LDP. Anti-Asō murmurings from within the LDP are growing louder, prompted by his mishandling of the Japan Post debate and Hatoyama's dismissal. (In the Mainichi poll, only 22% of respondents approved the government's dismissal of Hatoyama.) But in all the scrambling and the maneuvering against Asō, it is unclear how the LDP can present itself to the public in the months so to reverse the shift towards the DPJ. The LDP is struggling once again for the same reasons it has struggled throughout the four years since the last general election. As MTC argued in the post linked to above, the LDP has spent four years retreating from the Koizumi platform that helped the ruling coalition secure a record supermajority, with the result that the party's image is more muddled than usual. The fight over the reappointment of Nishikawa Yoshifumi as head of Japan Post is the natural consequence of the creation of a Koizumian reformist remnant within the LDP that has been marginalized within the party but retains considerable clout through its association with Koizumi, their ties with the media, and (for now) their numbers among the LDP's backbenchers. In forcing the prime minister to dismiss Hatoyama, the reformists scored a rare victory, but on the whole they have been in retreat for at least three years.

But it is not entirely clear what the reformists and the "old guard" are fighting over. Of course on paper they have two different visions for how the LDP should govern — although the old guard seems to put less on paper than the reformists, many of them being prolific bloggers and authors, wannabe public intellectuals of one sort or another. Nakagawa Hidenao, much like Koizumi, has no shortage of slogans about how to change Japan, but it is sometimes difficult to see how his slogans ("from government to the people," etc.) would translate into policies. For all the vitriol directed at the old LDP by Koizumi, Nakagawa, and others, the differences are less on policy and more on political style and tactics, the timing of reform, and the government's priorities. Few, after all, oppose "reform" outrightly. Indeed, there is no shortage of ideas in all issue areas and across the political spectrum. The problem is that plans and schemes are rarely matched by realistic approaches to implementation. To take one example, postal privatization obviously didn't end with the passage of legislation; it is a complicated process that has required more than sloganeering. Would the radical decentralization plans proposed by the leaders of both the LDP and the DPJ be any less tortuous in their implementation?

Structural reform may be necessary, but its advocates would do well to focus more on building stable, enduring coalition that can manage both the passage and the implementation of reforms than on devising clever slogans to rally support for their ideas while antagonizing other political actors. As Koizumi found, unrelenting war against the "opposition forces" was easier said than done: even he had to compromise with rivals within the LDP, and, more significantly, the finance ministry.

The result is that the LDP may be more amorphous than ever, saddled with Koizumi's legacy, torn between partisans of the Koizumi way and conservatives who want the minimal amount of change necessary to stay in power, and powerless to resolve these internal conflicts and consequently to make progress tackling the problems facing Japan. Yamamoto Ichita, one of the LDP's most outspoken reformists, has voiced his support for Asō, but it is half-hearted support, in that he supports Asō's leading the LDP into the general election because he thinks it would hurt the LDP to change leaders yet again. And it is telling that when he lists the government's accomplishments, he does not even attempt to spin Asō as a reformist, citing instead the economic stimulus packages and his foreign policy initiatives.

In other words, it is remarkable how little the LDP has to offer voters this year. Despite having the ultimate trump card in the form of the lower house supermajority, which ensured that it could overrule the DPJ-controlled upper house at will, the LDP and Komeitō have done remarkably little with their authority over the past three years. Work is proceeding on the party's manifesto, which promises to focus on the "livelihood of the people." (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) But by following the DPJ in promising to listen to the economic insecurities of the public, doesn't the LDP raise the question of what it has been doing to ease economic insecurity since the 2005 election and before? And by questioning the DPJ's ability to govern, won't the LDP invite questions about its own ability to govern? The narrative of this year's election campaign appears to favor the DPJ, as the public may once again be asking what the LDP has done with its mandate, instead of asking whether the DPJ will be able to deliver on its promises if given a mandate.

In short, LDP rule appears set to end in cacaphonous turmoil, as the party's warring schools squabble over whether the party is for "reform," "public wellbeing," or, like the DPJ, some combination of the two. And it seems that delaying the general election will only ensure that the combatants have more time to battle for the soul of the party, ensuring electoral defeat.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The battle for "reform"

In remarkably little time, the LDP has swung from doomed to ebullient and now once again is showing its age and fragility. And all it took was a nominal change in leadership in the DPJ.

Suga Yoshihide and Nakagawa Hidenao's campaign to ban hereditary politics from the LDP has proved to be immensely detrimental for Aso Taro's push to unify the party, with the ironic twist that the proposal gained support beyond the ranks of the reformists as a means of getting at Koizumi Junichiro, whose son is poised to inherit his seat. The proposal is on hold for the time being, as the LDP's Reform Headquarters, headed by Koizumi loyalist Takebe Tsutomu, has issued a final report on the proposal in which it declined to offer a timeline for introducing a ban on the inheritance of seats (or, more properly, candidacies).

More significantly, Nakagawa and the reformists are battling with the LDP's leadership over the contents of the party's manifesto, especially as it pertains to administrative reform. Nakagawa has created yet another study group devoted to administrative reform, this one with twenty-nine members. He is also circulating a petition calling for a more rigorous administrative reform bill than that on offer from the Aso government — Nakagawa insists that there is no time to waste, that the current extended Diet session is the time for radical adminstrative reform, that waiting until after a general election (you know, after the election in which the LDP may be defeated) is too late.

Nakagawa also insists that his target is the DPJ, not the prime minister. For instance, he has declined to sign the petition aimed at rescheduling the LDP's presidential election so that it is held before the general election. Indeed, Nakagawa wants to refight the 2005 postal election as a means of questioning the DPJ's commitment to administrative reform. The LDP ought to stand behind the Koizumi postal reform, he argues, as the first step in the direction of comprehensive administrative reform — and as a surefire way to distinguish the LDP from the DPJ. (The immediate question at hand is whether to retain Nishikawa Yoshifumi as head of Japan Post to shepherd the new company through to privatization.)

Nakagawa and his compatriots have no shortage of zeal, but zeal is no substitute for votes, party leadership posts, and ministerial portfolios. The LDP has spent the past four years running from Koizumi, isolating his supporters, readmitting the so-called "opposition forces," and more or less abandoning the agenda that served to get the current ruling supermajority elected in the first place. This is the big question surrounding Nakagawa and the other reformists. Are they the heralds of a new LDP that will emerge from the ashes of the old? Are they the last remnants of Koizumi's failed experiment to build a new LDP? The core of a reformist party that will emerge after the next general election? Perhaps it is too early to tell which description is right, but I am inclined to think that Nakagawa's battle to once again cast the LDP as the reform party is unlikely to succeed.

It is not just that the LDP has retreated from Koizumi, to the point of Prime Minister Aso's explicitly distancing his government from his predecessor's, but also that the DPJ isn't the enemy of reform that Nakagawa has long maintained it is. On the face of it, the LDP should have a tough time arguing that a party that has never held power is an enemy of change while a party that has held power for a half century can be the most effective agent of change. If Koizumi had actually won his battle for the party, perhaps this notion would not seem so far-fetched, but as things stand, the LDP cannot surpass the DPJ as the part of "change." Nakagawa might dismiss the DPJ's plans as mere rhetoric — rhetoric that is more or less identical to his own — but he has yet to make the case that his own reform ideas are anything but rhetoric, given his anti-mainstream status within the Aso LDP.

Of course, the DPJ actually has plans for change, most notably its ideas for unifying party and cabinet should it take power. The DPJ has had a comprehensive transition plan since 2003, a plan which clearly reflects lessons learned from LDP rule, the central themes of which will be outlined in a forthcoming article by Kan Naoto in Chuo Koron. Keeping powerful figures — whether formally or informally powerful — in the ruling party out of the government undermines the government. The idea is also to beef up the cabinet and its ministers, at the expense of senior bureaucrats and perhaps one might argue the prime minister's office. The DPJ in effect intends to give life to Article 65 of the constitution, by which "executive power...[is] vested in the Cabinet." Perhaps the most notable change would be transferring responsibility for the budget compilation process to the cabinet, presumably going beyond the administrative reform that shifted some macrobudgeting responsibilities to the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.

It is revealing, however, that the DPJ's reform plan dates from 2003, having survived the admittance of Ozawa Ichiro to the party and his rise and fall as party president. Indeed, Ozawa's zeal for administrative reform of the kind found in the party program meant that war with Kasumigaseki became ever more central to the party's plans for "regime change." And so it remains despite Ozawa's resignation as party president. The party's message going into the election is remarkably clear: administrative reform in the interest of making government more responsive to the voice of the people. Tellingly, the DPJ will retain its 2007 campaign slogan, "The people's livelihoods are number one." (In other words, it's the economic insecurity, stupid.)

Of course, despite the DPJ's unambiguous message, the general election will not be about policy. as I've argued recently. The campaign will instead feature attempts to muddy the other side's message, to question the other's ability to follow through on their rhetorical commitments to administrative reform and measures to ease economic insecurity. It will not be a particularly enlightening campaign, and it will tell us little about how a DPJ-led government will fare in power.

But then, the question remains. Should this year's general election be a referendum on the DPJ's fitness to govern? Or the LDP's record in power? Having shifted Ozawa into a supporting role, the DPJ has with remarkably little effort made judgment of the LDP's time in office as the dominant narrative of this year's campaign.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The LDP's reformists continue to battle family politics

Surprisingly, given the howls of protest from within the LDP that greeted Suga Yoshihide's proposal to include a ban on hereditary candidates in the party's election manifesto, the LDP appears ready to include restrictions on political inheritances in the manifesto after Suga met with Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief elections strategist, and Ibuki Bunmei, former LDP secretary-general and cabinet minister. Asahi reports that the proposed restriction will take the form of a regulation that will require a retiring politician to transfer his political organization's funds to the party upon retirement.

Given the prime minister's opposition to the idea, I wonder whether the agreement between Suga and Koga will be enough to secure inclusion in the manifesto.

Nevertheless, the party's reformists have latched on to the idea, suggesting that whatever happens with the LDP's manifesto, it will not go away. Restricting political inheritance is only the latest means for the reformists to run against their own party. Yamamoto Ichita, in an explication spanning four posts, frequently notes that forty percent of LDP Diet members are hereditary members — and says (unironically, given the phrase's original context) that the party needs to be able to draw upon the "best and the brightest." Giving preference to hereditary members, he argues, has turned potentially talented individuals away from the LDP. (There may be something to this: I wonder how many of the DPJ's younger members had hoped to earn the LDP's endorsement and turned to the DPJ only upon finding the LDP's doors closed to them.) Yamamoto also is unconvincing on the constitutionality of these restrictions, treating it in the context of restrictions on the freedom to choice one's occupation (Article 22), rather than, say, political discrimination on the basis of family origin (Article 14).

Through it all, Yamamoto and the other advocates fail to demonstrate why this is such an urgent problem at this point — and why it should be a prominent subject for discussion in the general election campaign. Ultimately discussions like this amount to political bait-and-switch, efforts by LDP reformists to sell the idea that the LDP has the potential to be the party of change, if only the reformists are given the run of things. 2005 may seem like a long time ago, but I hope voters remember what happened then: voters rewarded Koizumi Junichiro and his "children" with a huge majority, stripped of the hard core of Koizumi's "opposition forces," only to have the LDP readmit nearly all of the postal rebels mere months after Koizumi left office. The past four years have been one long retreat from the promise of Koizumi's new party. Why should the voters trust the LDP to be any different this time around, despite the promises of Nakagawa Hidenao and company?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Combating Botchan rule

The Japanese political establishment is debating how to combat an infestation that has penetrated Nagata-cho and is allegedly gnawing away at the foundations of Japanese democracy.

I'm speaking, of course, of Japan's hereditary politicians, who constitute roughly a quarter of the members of the two houses of the Diet.

The debate has grown out of an internal LDP debate. Earlier this month, Nakagawa Hidenao and Suga Yoshihide announced the creation of a new study group with the stated purpose of issuing recommendations for the LDP's electoral manifesto — but triggering speculation as to whether Nakagawa is once again looking to undermine the Aso government. The twenty-member group, composed mostly of younger reformists, met with journalist Tahara Soichiro on 16 April to discuss visions of Japan's future and its "national strategy," which is a typical enough agenda for this sort of group. (Nakagawa's activities led to a rebuke from the Machimura faction leadership, which suggested that if he wants to undertake these cross-factional projects, he should leave the faction.)

One of the group's goals is introducing restrictions on hereditary politicians into the LDP's manifesto; conveniently, Suga, the deputy election strategy chairman, is the prospective chairman of the project team responsible for drafting the manifesto. Not surprisingly, the prospect of restrictions has been poorly received by LDP members. One third of the party's Diet members are hereditary members. Eleven of seventeen ministers in the Aso cabinet are hereditary representatives. Whatever the merits of restricting hereditary politicians, for the LDP to include such a proposal while fielding such an extraordinary number of hereditary politicians would be both the height of absurdity and a gross insult to the public. The Aso government has criticized the motion. The prime minister himself said he wasn't sure how is defined for legal purposes.

But Nakagawa has pressed on, declaring on Thursday that he will not pass his seat along to his two sons. (This strikes me as an easy promise for him to make while alive and not close to retirement.)

At the same time, the DPJ, sensing an opportunity, has stressed the importance of restricting hereditary politicians. A survey of DPJ Diet members conducted last week found that nearly sixty percent favor restrictions on hereditary members and Okada Katsuya, head of the DPJ's headquarters for promoting reform, has moved to include the issue in the DPJ's manifesto. The DPJ is rushing to ban candidates from running the same districts as political relatives within three degrees of kinship. Okada has gone so far as to suggest that the issues of contention in the forthcoming election will be "hereditary politics and donations."

This last quote from Okada speaks volumes about why this issue is emerging to the fore now. Okada appears to have finally decided to act like a possible successor and rival to Ozawa Ichiro for leadership of the DPJ, and with the hereditary politics issue he has an issue that enables him to undermine Ozawa while attacking the LDP (while encouraging divisions within the LDP by reaching out to the embattled Suga). It is an obvious means of attacking the LDP and its core of hereditary members, while putting pressure on Ozawa to go, because after all wouldn't it be hypocritical for the DPJ to campaign against hereditary politics while headed by a hereditary politician? "Hereditary politics and donations" might be Okada's vision of the general election campaign, but it could just as easily be his slogan in a battle with Ozawa. Ozawa, after all, inherited his seat some forty years ago. Okada has already questioned publicly Ozawa's explanation for the Okubo scandal, and he and others in the party may be getting ready for Okada's triumphant return to the DPJ leadership as the face of clean government.

Meanwhile, for LDP politicians pushing this plan it is an obvious attempt to reinvigorate the Koizumian "new LDP," with the irony being of course that at the center of this debate is Koizumi Junichiro's son Shinjiro, who is expected to run for the seat being vacated by Koizumi pere.

But despite this growing tempest, I remain unconvinced that banning hereditary politicians will make the slightest bit of difference in how Japan is governed. I still don't see how such a ban would be constitutional, given that Article 14 prohibits "discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin." As I remarked previously, banning hereditary politicians from running in the same district as relatives — arbitrarily defined — sounds like political discrimination on the basis of family origin to me. I do not doubt the intentions of Okada, Suga, Nakagawa, and others when they state that they support restrictions in order to lower barriers of entry to new candidates. But it seems that there are other steps to take that might be even more effective (and constitutional) means of enabling new candidates to run. Okada recognizes this, and argues for voluntary restraints in the nomination processes of the parties.

But why not talk about lifting the restrictions on campaign activities which strictly curtail political activities, the laws that limit when and where political speeches can be made, where posters can be placed and what can be placed on them, which technologies can be used and when, etc.? Japan's campaign laws naturally favor incumbents who get free publicity thanks to be sitting Diet members and also encourage hereditary politicians to enter politics, family name being one of the critical assets from candidates.

I frankly fail to see why dealing with the "hereditary politics" problem is so urgent, aside from the aforementioned political benefits to those pressing for restrictions. I am still unconvinced that hereditary leaders are any better or worse than non-hereditary politicians. And if it is a problem, it is certainly not a problem that should be at the center of the forthcoming electoral campaign. Japan has simply too many problems to waste an election campaign on the question of whether Japan is governed by botchans. Fix Japan's broken institutions and shine more light on the policymaking process and I suspect people will be amazed by how much better the system works, even without swapping the current crop of politicians for a new one untainted by inheritance.