I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.
- Will Rogers, American humorist
AMERICANS ON BOTH SIDES of the political aisle still laugh about the Will Rogers quip above, but it’s no laughing matter that the same could be said about Japan’s two major parties. All political parties are to a degree coalitions, but the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party are little more than coalitions of convenience. The only cement that held the former together during their days in opposition was that they were Not The LDP. Do the members have a common political philosophy? While they are generally left of center, it sometimes seems as if their ideas are as diverse as those of a group selected at random from the phone book. For its part, the LDP was created specifically as a coalition of non-leftist parties in 1955. Now it’s a coalition of the Old Guard and non-leftist reformers.
Their inherent structural inefficiencies make it inevitable that both will either disband or turn into rump parties, behave like paramecium and exchange nucleic material, and reassemble as different entities. Falling out of power might have hastened that process for the LDP. Gaining power might have hastened that process for the DPJ.
One of the speakers at a symposium I attended in Tokyo last October went off topic briefly to say that the Nagata-cho politicos were convinced DPJ strongman Ozawa Ichiro would cut the left out of the ruling party, form a new political entity, and govern in the manner of a milder Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given his checkered history, but those rumors circulate still.
That’s why eyebrows lifted at media reports of a lecture Mr. Ozawa delivered on the 13th at the Ichiro Ozawa Seiji-juku. The Seiji-juku is an institute he says he created to train people for a political career, and other people say he created to train aides for Ozawa Ichiro.
Declared the DPJ secretary-general, with my emphasis added:
Since losing the election, the LDP has fallen apart, or perhaps it had a meltdown. For now, there is no other alternative than for a DPJ government to handle politics while we go through a process of trial and error.
The Japanese are highly attuned to the use of deliberate subtleties, so everyone spotted those two words right away. For now? What’s coming next?
One hint might come from a brief exchange in a panel discussion in the 13 December issue of the Sunday Mainichi. Said journalist/commentator Toshikawa Takao:
Mr. Ozawa conceived the process of centralizing local government budget requests with an eye on the nationwide 2011 local elections. Budgets are implemented by chief executive officers and the local legislatures. Mr. Ozawa wants to bring down all the LDP-affiliated mayors, governors, and assemblymen in those elections. I think his idea is to crush them beyond hope of recovery.
Responded panelist Futatsuki Hirotaka:
I also think his real aim is the nationwide local elections. If (the DPJ) can win those and crush the LDP, it’s also possible that a new “Ozawa Party” could be created…Could it be that a two-party system with alternating governments was just a vehicle for seizing political power?
Hatoyama the younger
Mr. Ozawa is not the only one jockeying for position. In the 27 February issue of Shukan Gendai released last week, ex-DPJ and current LDP member Hatoyama Kunio, the prime minister’s brother, hinted he would leave the LDP and form a new party, perhaps as early as April.
He said he wants to create a third force aligned with Hiranuma Takeo, the Japanese version of a social conservative, and government reform firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi.
He added that relying on the DPJ was pointless because his brother had been “assaulted” by Ozawa Ichiro. (The word he used was 犯された, or okasareta, which can also mean raped. Let’s not go there.)
Mr. Hatoyama also said he would offer his new party as a vehicle for popular former Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi (photo), who tops some polls as the person Japanese would most like to see as the next prime minister.
I’ve already talked to Mr. Masuzoe several times. The hopes of the people are centered on him. But it’s a fact that he can’t do anything by himself. I could support him.
Mr. Hatoyama knew his announcement would get headlines; the Hatoyama name assures media coverage. But no amount of media coverage can offset his lightness of being as a politician, nor can it convince many Japanese to take him seriously.
The idea that he could bring together Mr. Hiranuma and Mr. Watanabe is fanciful to say the least. The former was tossed from the LDP by former Prime Minister Koizumi for objecting to postal privatization. The latter wants to continue the privatization process.
It’s perhaps uncharitable to say so, but his motivation to form a new political party might stem from fraternal jealousy rather than political conviction. His seems to be an ambition springing from envy at the success of his brother Yukio, both in politics and in getting his mother to cough up a substantial amount of the family fortune to pay for it.
Masuzoe doing fine on his own
Meanwhile, Mr. Masuzoe formed and convened the first meeting of a study group with several LDP members. The stated objective was to examine economic strategy, including international competitiveness and employment measures. The implicit objective, however, was to explore the potential of either gaining control of the LDP or forming a new party of his own. Some of the people involved include:
- Suga Yoshihide: A former interior minister and something of a reformer, he’s been allied with a wide range of people in the past. He started out in the camp of Kato Koichi, an extreme conciliator on North Korean issues, but finally pitched a tent on the grounds of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, whose hard-line stand against the North Koreans put him at the head of government.
- Shiozaki Yasuhisa: A former chief cabinet secretary under Abe Shinzo, Mr. Shiozaki has taken a consistently strong stand in favor of bureaucratic reform. He was criticized in his previous position for his inability to serve as a coordinator between the party (LDP) and the Abe administration.
- Seko Hiroshige: A former aide to Mr. Abe, he fulfills the key role of handling mass media relations.
- Kawaguchi Yoriko: She was a foreign minister in the Koizumi Cabinet, though it was widely assumed that then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda Yasuo did the real work.
The study group also backs the Koizumian structural reform agenda, including postal privatization. It’s worth noting that Mr. Masuzoe explicitly mentions the former prime minister’s name and policies in his speeches.
About 30 mid-level and younger Diet members attended the group’s first meeting last week. Mr. Masuzoe told them:
The LDP lost because their reforms were insufficient…Merely redistributing the wealth without increasing it will destroy the nation. We should correct the government’s mistakes and lead the nation.
The group espouses seven core principles. One holds that “economic growth is the basis for enhancing social welfare and minimizing income differentials.” The others include accelerating the shift of power from the bureaucracy to the people, and opposition to the DPJ’s plans to renationalize Japan Post.
Hatoyama Kunio was at the meeting and didn’t care at all for that last part:
What does true postal privatization mean? In the end, (the postal services) won’t extend everywhere unless the government provides them.
Other Koizumian reformers attending included the influential Nakagawa Hidenao, Kono Taro, and upper house member Yamamoto Ichita.
Mr. Masuzoe is taking the battle both to the DPJ and to the mudboat wing of the LDP, his own party. He wrote an article in this month’s Gendai Business blasting what he calls Prime Minister Hatoyama’s “Daydream Pacificism”.
In a speech in Utsunomiya on the 20th, he said:
I am preparing to boldly recruit members from the DPJ when that dictatorial party reaches a dead end and collapses…I will do everything I can if Prime Minister Hatoyama or Mr. Ozawa resign, or if an opposition group arises within the party.
Commenting on the senior members of the LDP:
If they’ve got the time to complain about people who would rebuild the party, they should complain about the DPJ instead. Some senior members have no sense of the crisis facing us, and that will doom the party.
On former Agriculture and Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru’s suggestion to ban factions in the LDP:
Factions aren’t necessary in an opposition party. The old factions aren’t functioning.
Though he invokes the Koizumi name, some suggest Mr. Masuzoe is not quite as Koizumian as he would have us believe. They think he merely senses a shift in the public mood back in that direction (if it ever really drifted that far away to begin with).
Regardless, he clearly is starting to make a move. His advantages include popularity with the public and a demonstrated vote-getting ability–which other politicians always respect. (He held his upper house seat in the 2006 election that swung control of that body to a DPJ-led coalition.)
He also sees the public moving away from the DPJ. Some polls are now showing Mr. Hatoyama’s popularity below the 40% level. At those numbers, red lights start flashing in the inner sanctums of party headquarters. Also, the LDP-backed candidate in the Nagasaki Prefecture gubernatorial election, Nakamura Norimichi, won that race handily on Sunday against the candidate backed by the three ruling coalition parties and several other contenders.
The defeat was all the more remarkable because three prominent DPJ Cabinet members had campaigned for their candidate in Nagasaki, including the popular Maehara Seiji and Haraguchi Kazuhiro. It still wasn’t enough. Yomiuri Shimbun exit polls showed that more than 40% of the voters were influenced by the DPJ financial scandals.
For the time being, Hatoyama Yukio and Ozawa Ichiro cling to power and refuse to admit they’re part of their party’s problem rather than the solution. The latter may break away to form his own group, but he is now so distrusted by both the people and other politicians it’s difficult to see how an Ozawa Party will have a long-term impact.
Now that the DPJ has failed to smartly grasp the reins of power, the other jockeys are looking to move into the openings along the rail.
Sometimes Ozawa Ichiro does make sense. For example, in this year’s upper house election, he’s gunning for Aoki Mikio, 75, the head of the LDP bloc in that chamber. Mr. Ozawa has declared Mr. Aoki’s Shimane seat to be the party’s priority.
Said Mr. Ozawa:
Mr. Aoki represents the old system. His role is based in that era, and it is over.
Ain’t that the truth. There are more than a few in the LDP reform wing who would agree with him. Mr. Aoki is most definitely not a reformer, and he has personal veto power over who runs as the LDP candidates in the upper house race this year.
But it’s never all good with Ozawa Ichiro. He recruited a 34-year-old local TV announcer, Iwata Hirotaka, to run in the district. Mr. Iwata was on the job until four days ago, when he abruptly resigned.
If Mr. Iwata wins, he will be little more than an Ozawa puppet who votes as instructed out of gratitude for a national spotlight and the generous perquisites of a Diet member. Undoubtedly the party will try to employ his infotainment business background and put him on stage as a pitchman if he wins.
There’s another aspect to the race as well. When Ozawa Ichiro headed the Liberal Party that he later brought into the DPJ, Hatoyama Yukio observed that Ozawa’s primary political motivation was to destroy the LDP after he lost an internal power struggle.
That battle occurred in the old Takeshita Noboru faction. Both Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Aoki are veterans of that faction who backed different horses. The former was on the losing side.
Really, a lot of problems would be solved by instituting a party primary system. One benefit would be the end of party fiefdoms. An Iwata win would help perpetuate them.