Q1: Does the DPJ stand a realistic chance of taking power and having Okada become prime minister? b) If so, in what time frame?
A1: As long as the LDP remains united and in coalition with the Komeito, the answers are a) no, no, and b) not before 2011 or a revolutionary court ruling.
On its own, the DPJ does not the votes to overcome the gerrymandering that protects the LDP from the wrath of the urban voter. The only way the DPJ could immediately seize power is in coalition with the Komeito. While DPJ “big pipes” keep dangling the prospect of a DPJ/Komeito coalition before their Komeito equivalents, both sides know that there is little possibility of cooperation. The Komeito and its 8 million votes, having switched sides once in order to form a ruling coalition with the LDP, cannot reasonably switch sides again.
The fun begins, however, when one considers the possibility of the LDP breaking apart before the next census and reapportionment. The present LDP is a bizarre ideological chimera with incompatible urban consumer, heavy industrial and rural agriculture and primary industry elements. Of the various elements, the rural agricultural arm has the shakiest future. Japanese still have an aesthetic fixation about the inaka (encouraged by the government and the media). However, as ever more children are born and grow up in the core cities, the ability of the rural regions to continue to demand a disproportionate fraction of the country’s resources diminishes. The LDP has managed to maintain a presence in the cities; indeed, they were able to win back at-large seats in Tokyo and Osaka this year. Over the long run, however, if the party does not abandon its decades-long practices of taxing the cities and the suburbs and doting on the hinterlands, then the urban LDP will go extinct.
The PM holds the a few important cards in this game. He has already initiated “Trinity” – a complex transfer of authority, involving taxation rights, central budget cutbacks and local autonomy between the central government and the prefectures in order to drive a wedge between the prefectural governors and Nagatacho. Over time, the prefectures will have to make their own way rather than relying on specific Diet members to deliver the pork. Second, he has the ability to dissolve the Diet and call for new elections at any time. The threat of new House of Representatives elections, with the possibility that younger LDP members could ally with the DPJ to save their own political skins, is the club the PM holds over the heads over the other gray hairs in his party.
In a nutshell, Okada can succeed Koizumi—but only if Koizumi kills the LDP first.
Q2: Are Okada and the DPJ ready for prime time? To what extent are they weakened by internal divisions?
A2: Yes, Okada is ready for primetime: he is on television pretty much every night and Sunday mornings too. He has not, to my knowledge, said or done anything truly foolish (intemperate, perhaps, but not foolish). Seriously, he would be a fine PM.
Internal divisions weaken the DPJ and the LDP equally. The DPJ, however, enjoys the luxury of being unified in its opposition to the LDP. The LDP must, by contrast, rely on the far less stable principle unity through a common lust for power. However, one should keep in mind that quite a few within the LDP have a near infinite lust for power.
Q3: Would a DPJ government bring about any change - and any problems - in the Japan-U.S. relationship? (I'm thinking of Okada's criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and his views on SDF deployment in Iraq.)
A3: Change in the U.S.-Japan relationship? You bet. The first order of business would be the withdrawal of the Self Defense Forces mission in Iraq for being incompatible with the Japanese Constitution and without basis in the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Second would be a more forceful public voicing of doubts in U.S. tactics and strategy in the global war on terror. Third would far less “understanding” of U.S. opposition of multilateral initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol, the International Court of Justice. Fourth would be a short-lived but destructive attempt to link preservation of the value of the dollar with changes in U.S. fiscal policies and its international behavior.
Okada and the rest of the DPJ shadow cabinet are aware that the U.S. relationship is crucial to Japan’s security. They would like to believe, however, that one can separate loyalty to the Japan-U.S. relationship and loyalty to the Bush Administration, which they loathe.
Q4: To what extent is the Japanese public fed up with Koizumi? Has the Koizumi phenomenon, or whatever you want to call it, played itself out?
A4:: The Koizumi phenomenon has played itself out. The PM is not wildly popular. To be fair, as an honest, stubborn and self-assured man of some intellect, he managed to stay in the public’s favor for a remarkably long time.
That the phenomenon has faded does not mean that the PM’s tenure is on the brink. Though no longer the object of adulation, the PM is respected—for his patience, his survival skills and his advocacy of Japan’s interests. He has outlasted and outsmarted opponents within the LDP with stronger claims to party leadership. He is now competing with great PM’s of the past in terms of historical significance.
The PM is the unrecognized master of the long game. Despite the clamoring of newspaper editorialists, business organizations, the television talking heads and foreign observers, he willing to stay on his modest course until his opponents--the North Koreans, the Chinese, members of the Hashimoto faction, zombie borrowers, the Democratic Party, critical members of the Diet—commit some inexplicable, unpardonable blunder. They have time and time again obliged him.