Tuesday, December 14, 2004

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.
Some notes regarding the Mainichi Shimbun poll that might reiterate what others have written elsewhere…

The wire services are all alight with the results of the weekend Mainichi Shimbun poll. Telephone polling found support for the Cabinet at 37% and opposition to the Cabinet at 45%, the first time that support for the Cabinet has fallen below the 40% level. The new figures represent a significant decline from the November Mainichi poll that had support for the Cabinet at 45% and opposition to the Cabinet at 36%.

When the 45% of the respondents opposed to the Koizumi Cabinet were asked the reason for their opposition, they gave the following answers (all numbers are percentages):

Dec poll Nov poll

Because Koizumi is the LDP president, 7 7
Because the compromises struck with the coalition partner are so glaring 21 18
Because the economic recovery is so late in arriving 44 41
Because the response to political scandal has been so passive 20 18
Other 8 16

Interestingly, only one of the listed reasons, the second one, has a discernable relationship with Iraq. In terms of the Iraq deployment, the compromising party would be the traditionally pacifist Komeito, not Koizumi’s LDP.

The Cabinet’s approval of a year-long extension of the Self Defense Forces mission to Iraq has hurt the Cabinet’s popularity ratings. Dissatisfaction with the process, or lack of one, is clear. The December poll finds that 84% of the populace feels that the PM has not fully explained the purpose of the Self Defense Forces mission in Iraq—indicating that even among the Koizumi Cabinet’s supporters many are dissatisfied with the PM’s public statements on the Iraq dispatch.

Attitudes toward the dispatch have also hardened in the last month. In November, 51% of respondents were opposed the mission and 27% were in favor. In the December poll, 62% were opposed and 31% in favor.

Decay in the Cabinet’s popularity was not accompanied by a decline in the popularity of the ruling coalition parties. The LDP recouped some of the ground lost between October, when it received 34% support, to November, when it received only 26%, by posting a 29% support rating this month. The Komeito support level shaded upward slightly, to 5% in December from 4% in October and November.

The opposition DPJ continues to spin its wheels in its pursuit of the LDP. In October the DPJ held the support of 20% of the electorate, in November 18% and in December 19%. Most disappointing and confusing for the DPJ is its continuing inability to attract women voters. In December women chose to support the LDP (29%) nearly twice as often as they supported the DPJ (16%).

As for the left-wing parties, they continued their night-of-the-living-dead shuffle, with the Communists receiving 3% support and the Socialists 2%.

With the support for the Cabinet down to 37%, Koizumi must be more subdued in his behavior over the next few weeks. He will likely continue to project an aura of stubbornness but he probably will try to do so without offending anyone unduly. The poll number with the greatest relevance is the 84% figure. The PM has not explained the extension of the SDF’s tour of duty in Iraq to the public’s content. Over the last weeks of this year and the first two weeks of the next, he will have an opportunity to make his case ex post facto.