SUMMER IS THE SEASON for fireworks, but there’s a real possibility the mad festival of Japanese politics could explode in a shower of light, fire, and dead flowers as early as this week.
The fuse has already been lit by an unpopular administration, a nebbish prime minister, and a Cabinet whose principal member is so unattractive one wonders how he ever convinced voters in his district to elect him in the first place. If the fuse doesn’t fizzle, the Big Bang could produce (a) A revived coalition between the Democratic Party and the Social Democrats, (b) A grand coalition with the Liberal Democrats, or Ozawa Ichiro (c-1) Either splitting to form a new party or (c-2) Being dumped by the DPJ, which would mean the end of the ruling party as we know it. Let’s see what’s burning under all those smoke signals.
Coalition with the Social Democrats
Unless they provide evidence that they’ve suddenly discovered how to negotiate with the opposition, the Kan Cabinet will have difficultly passing the enabling legislation for next year’s budget through the upper house, where the party does not have a majority. (The budget itself does not require upper house approval to go into effect.) One solution would be to form an ad hoc coalition in the upper house. Another would be to reconstitute the coalition with the Social Democrats that fell apart earlier this year when the Hatoyama administration backtracked on its pledge to have the Americans move the Futenma airbase out of Okinawa. Such a coalition would provide a two-thirds majority in the lower house, negating the need for upper house approval of any legislation.
Some in the DPJ are enthusiastic about the idea. Said Matsuno Yorihisa, the former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Hatoyama Cabinet and the editor of the prime minister’s e-mail magazine:
“We should hold discussions with the Social Democratic Party again and form a parliamentary coalition…regardless of the circumstances, we should create a framework in which we can exercise a two-thirds majority to pass legislation.”
More than a few in the ruling party don’t like the idea at all, however. The price of such a coalition, as discussed by Mr. Kan and SDP head Fukushima Mizuho last Monday, would be to break the agreement with the Americans about Futenma, reduce the Japanese financial contribution to the American military presence, and forget about the new idea floated by the Kan Cabinet to turn Japan into a weapons exporter. On her way out the door after the meeting, Ms. Fukushima said: 私がぶち切れなくてすむようによろしくお願いします.
Translation is not algebra, and there are many ways to approach any passage. For example, the concept of profanity is not the same in the two languages, and the concept of profanity itself has become degraded over the past few years in the Anglosphere. I prefer the high road, but it’s difficult to resist the temptation to translate the above sentence as, “Please make sure you don’t piss me off this time.”
She was joking, but that still wound up pissing off a lot of other people. Said Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi:
“It’s a reversion to the terminal period of a government. They’ve flip-flopped so much they’ve gone into a Dutch roll.”
Considering the context, he also came as close as any Japanese politician I’ve heard to saying, “WTF are they doing?” and added:
“There has been absolutely no self-reflection based on what happened to the collapsed Hatoyama government, in which the dog’s tail wagged the head. They just want to extend the life of this government.”
LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru said:
“This would destroy the Japan-United States relationship. What will be lost will be more than what is gained by a two-thirds majority.”
Meanwhile, senior LDP member Nakagawa Hidenao wrote on his blog, “It’s time to bring down the Cabinet.”
While there’s no Constitutional or legal problem with using a supermajority in the lower house to override an upper house rejection, some politicians think it runs counter to the spirit of the Japanese democratic system. Here’s what one MP had to say:
“This (maneuver) has been abused so much, the regular repassage of legislation using the two-thirds majority for bills in the lower house represents nothing more than the expiration of the “sell-by date” for the Diet itself, the denial of deliberative democracy, and, more than anything else, the desecration of the Japanese bicameral system of parliamentary democracy. The true path to resolving this situation is to dissolve the Diet as quickly as possible, hold a general election, and call for a vote of confidence from the sovereign will of the people.”
Oh, wait…that was SDP member Abe Tomoko speaking about the Aso administration on 19 June 2009.
Let’s try this one:
“This is the first time we’ve had such an anomalous situation in half a century, since 1957, and I can only say that it is extremely regrettable from the standpoint of parliamentary democracy. It’s clear to everyone that the only way to overcome this situation and create new hope is to dissolve the lower house and hold a general election.”
Oy, did it again! That was Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito in 12 December 2008, when he was an opposition member criticizing the Aso administration.
This time for sure!
“Isn’t it logical that the first thing that should be done is to dissolve the lower house and have a vote of confidence from the people to determine whether the lower house delegates represent the national will?”
Oh, boy. That’s what Prime Minister Kan Naoto said when he was in the opposition speaking out against the Fukuda administration’s use of the supermajority on 13 May 2008.
Grand coalition with the Liberal Democrats
FNN is reporting that DPJ executives asked Watanabe Tsuneo, the chairman of the Yomiuri Shimbun group, to act as a go-between in talks with the LDP to form
one big happy political family a grand coalition. Mr. Watanabe served the same role three years ago during negotiations between then-Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and then-DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro. They worked out a deal, but the other DPJ senior members balked and Mr. Ozawa briefly walked.
The Yomiuri chairman met with former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio on the 7th and with LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu on the 8th. He’s also reportedly met with Sengoku Yoshito.
Writing about the action behind the scenes on his blog, Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji charged that the actors were trying to arrange a structure with older conservative elements and veterans in the background while pushing younger and fresher faces up front. He said, “It’s an artifice for double-crossing the people”.
He thinks such a coalition would ultimately benefit his party, because it would create a battle between “big government on a bureaucracy-led, high-tax course with pork, against forces favoring small government on a private sector-led, growth course with the regions playing the main role.”
He also suggested that people should pay attention to the statements of LDP leadership, as one senior party member said they would have to listen to DPJ proposals for a grand coalition if Mr. Kan came to them “on bended knee”.
It’s time to read between the lines. First Ishiba Shigeru, chairman of the party’s Policy Research Council:
“Reorganizing the coalition without an election is a perversion. If the DPJ cuts loose the Ozawa group, it is not out of the question that the LDP could work with them, but they’ll have to clearly state why they want to work together…if there is a coalition, they’ll have to completely change last year’s manifesto, so unless there is an immediate election and the confidence of the people, the government will not have any legitimacy.”
Bended knee, eh? Here’s Mr. Tanigaki:
“At present I am extremely negative (about the possibility). It is not easy to unify a party to create a grand coalition. Does Mr. Kan have that base and those skills?…Their approval rate is in the 20% range. It’s not possible to form a coalition with that sort of government….and there’s no reason to form a coalition with any party in which Mr. Ozawa is a member.”
Mr. Ishihara again:
“How are we supposed to get together with a party that can’t even clean itself? We can’t join hands with them just to increase their popularity.”
And Koike Yuriko, the chair of the party’s General Council, on the 10th:
“Isn’t the DPJ itself already a coalition of the left and right wings? We know how that grand coalition is working out for them. At this point the LDP should not casually engage in talks about a grand coalition.”
Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro doesn’t like the idea at all. He met informally on the 8th with some former LDP and New Komeito officials and spoke against the coalition because it would only benefit the DPJ.
New Komeito head Yamaguchi Tatsuo is thumbs down too:
“Creating a framework of the two largest parties will result in an extreme amount of authority. We must have a clear sense of the side effects. It must not be like the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (of 1940, in which political parties dissolved themselves into a larger entity with the military and bureaucrats)….A grand coalition is not the only path. It is fully possible to form a consensus by creating the opportunity for the ruling party and the opposition to hold discussions…The DPJ as the ruling party of government should take the responsibility to lead those discussions.”
My sentiments exactly. But Watanabe Yoshimi eschewed the high road:
“I want to tell them, enough already–this isn’t a children’s game. If they’re going to turn politics into a game of playing house, it will only result in the people’s distrust of politics.”
It’s a little late for that now, I’m afraid.
That brings us to the prime minister himself. The media asked him about the possibility of a grand coalition, and he answered:
“I have nothing to say.”
Does that mean you’re not thinking about it?
“I have nothing to say.”
So what else is new?
It’s not surprising that the bad penny of Japanese politics, now just a regular old DPJ MP, but formerly the head and/or secretary-general of enough parties to form a grand coalition with himself, is the gorilla in the middle of the room that everyone sees. The problem is that no one knows how much he weighs any more.
Another former LDP prime minister, Mori Yoshiro, said he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a grand coalition, but added this non sequitur:
“It’s just weird that the DPJ thinks it has to go that far to protect Ozawa Ichiro. Isn’t it just a ploy to extend Mr. Ozawa’s political career?”
That may be precisely the opposite of what’s happening. Today is election day for the prefectural assembly in Ibaragi. The DPJ has performed miserably in local elections since their poor performance in the July upper house ballot, including the elections for the open Hokkaido 5th district seat, the mayor of Fukuoka City, the governor of Wakayama, and the Matsudo City Council. Earlier this week, Mr. Ozawa told some younger acolytes:
“The local (party organizations) will be spewing fire if there is a (DPJ) defeat in the Ibaragi prefectural assembly election. (The Kan administration) will not survive in the party.”
Mr. Ozawa has already predicted the DPJ will collapse from the sub-national level. The DPJ is supporting 24 candidates, and their bottom line for success is at least 10 winners.
He’s also hinting broadly that he’ll leave the party and form a new one. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s made that threat, nor would it be the first time he’s left a party and formed a new one. Freelance journalist Itagaki Eiken, who seems to have a source in the Ozawa camp, wrote earlier this week that Mr. Ozawa’s mind is made up and that he and Hatoyama Yukio are already working together. A split, he wrote, might come as early as the 17th. Mr. Itagaki says that Mr. Ozawa told affiliates from the old Tanaka faction in the LDP and friendly prefectural politicians to be in Tokyo that day. He also noted that Mr. Ozawa won more than 200 votes in the DPJ presidential election in early September.
The story could be true—after all, if he wants the money from the government subsidy for political parties any time soon, he’s going to have to make his move this month. The story could also be disinformation.
Mr. Ozawa reportedly met at a sushi bar with Hatoyama Yukio on the 8th, in the company of younger brother and former LDP Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio and former LDP Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi. Mr. Masuzoe was considered prime ministerial material a couple of years ago, and left the LDP to form his own group, called the New Renaissance Party. The only people he could get to join, however, were former Ozawa Ichiro allies whose political philosophy would not seem to be in alignment with his. He is seen as an ambitious man, and everyone remembers that Hosokawa Morihiro was also the head of a small party when he became the prime minister in a 1993 coalition government run by Ozawa Ichiro behind the scenes.
Someone present at the sushi bar whispered to a reporter that everyone agreed to cooperate because Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa are being cut adrift from the DPJ by the Kan administration and the party’s leftist elements as a means to buoy their popularity.
Perhaps hedging his bets, Mr. Masuzoe also met with Prime Minister Kan at the latter’s request the next day. Doesn’t hurt to listen, does it?
Watanabe Yoshimi said he’d have turned down a request by Mr. Kan for a meeting, and observed that Mr. Masuzoe apparently thinks either a coalition to extend the life of the Kan Cabinet or a coalition with Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama would be fine. He added:
“I’m not like Mr. Masuzoe, who doesn’t have a guiding philosophy.”
Then again, Mr. Ozawa might get drummed out of the DPJ before he gets a chance to walk. Leaders of the DPJ will convene a lower house ethics panel this week to hold a vote on whether to summon him to testify over allegations that he helped the group managing his political funds to lie on their official reports. (It’s difficult keeping up with all his alleged financial irregularities.)
Mr. Ozawa doesn’t want to testify, and his supporters say it’s an insult. The DPJ is hinting that they might kick him out if he doesn’t show up.
Let’s leave the last word to Watanabe Yoshimi:
“If the DPJ takes a shellacking in the Ibaragi prefectural council elections, Armageddon will start within the party. It would be best for Japan if they broke up quickly.”
UPDATE: The DPJ won only six seats in the Ibaragi election, one-fourth of the number they backed. Four of the winners were incumbents; two DPJ-backed incumbents lost. In four electoral districts, there was a direct face-off between the DPJ-backed candidate and the LDP-backed candidate, with no others in the race. The DPJ lost all four.
What’s going to happen? I’m not going to make any guesses. Trying to predict the course of Japanese politics is Mission: Impossible.