In politics, as in low-grade popular music, you are only as good as your latest effort. Yesterday, the voters of Nagasaki Prefecture and Machida City delivered an indirect review of life under the Democratic Party of Japan's doubtful duarchy.
Their verdict, according to the conventional wisdom: not thrilled.
The race for governor of Nagasaki Prefecture should have been closer. Last summer, the DPJ carried all four of Nagasaki Prefecture's district seats. However Nakamura Hodo, the LDP- and Komeito-supported candidate, pretty much sailed to victory over his ruling coalition-supported rival. Certain factors may have aided Nakamura: the field was crowded, with 7 candidates in the running, including a former professional wrestler; turnout was mediocre, with only 60% of the voters casting a vote--the second lowest total ever for a Nagasaki gubernatorial election; and Nakamura was virtually the incumbent, riding on the coattails of his predecessor, three-time governor Kaneko Genjiro, whom he had served as vice-governor.
Nevertheless, Nakamura's defeat of his younger DPJ rival by 95,000 votes kicked the supports out from under the fundamental strategy of presenting the DPJ and its coalition allies as the agents of vital change. The electorate in Nagasaki simply did not buy the message.
Far more threatening for the fortunes of the DPJ's duarchy, Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro in particular, was the wipeout in Machida City. With only a few days to go before the election and the poll numbers looking bad, Ozawa had made the decision to campaign in person in Machida -- a rare step down for Ozawa into the unpredictable world of municipal elections.
Sunday's result was near catastrophic for the DPJ. In a low turnout election (50%) with five candidates running, the LDP- and Komeito-backed incumbent crushed his ruling coalition-backed rival by nearly a nearly two-to-one margin. Machida, a sub-center of the Tokyo Metropolitan District, is just the sort of salary man-rich electoral territory that should automatically plunk down for the DPJ candidate. That the voters ignored the DPJ-annointed candidate will be the source of a great deal of stress at DPJ headquarters, particularly amongst those working for the many DPJ members whose candidacies live or die on the votes of the non-aligned salaried workers and their spouses.
For Ozawa, today is going to be a very rough day. Until now he has been able to dismiss the concerns of many middle-status members of the DJP that his handling of the investigation of his political funding organization and the arrests of three of his former political secretaries is driving voters away from the DPJ. The results from last night, particularly results from the Machida election in which Ozawa decided to inject himself, will provide Ozawa's internal party critics with ammunition for an assault on his leadership position.
Ozawa has had the luxury until now of saying, "So the polls say that the populace wants me to quit as party secretary-general. Where is the evidence that my polling numbers are going to affect the party's election results?" Fairly or not, Ozawa's many critics are going to take last night's results and say, "There's your evidence."
The only question for me is whether we will be seeing Ozawa in a paper mask this morning. His susceptibility to colds has always been so curiously synchronized with his times of political weakness.