One of the decisions made with strikingly little debate and seemingly little aforethought in the aftermath of the August 2009 election was the dissolution of the Democratic Party of Japan's Policy Research Council. I understood the symbolic point being made: that the policy framework set out by the new National Policy Unit (Kokka Senryaku Shitsu) should not be subject to second guessing by the party's own policy crafting apparatus. However, the likely practical and political fallout from the abolition of the party's policy arm seemed to outweigh the symbolic value of the act. Was it really necessary to abolish the party's ideas factory in order to enforce party/government message discipline? A simple suggestion -- "don't make waves" -- would have sufficed.
The decision seemed particularly perilous in light of the default alternative: the concentration of policy drafting in the hands of Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro. Handing all policy making to Ozawa guaranteed that DPJ proposals would be perceived as having a bias toward winning votes, not the national interest. Eliminating the Policy Research Council also reduced the structural framework for the party's middle ranks to take part in policy making -- which resulted in the party mid-levels predictably demanding a forum.
Having Ozawa in unfettered control of all aspects of DPJ business -- the party purse, party appointments and policy making -- was furthermore bad in optical terms. It certainly seemed to support the Liberal Democratic Party's contention that the DPJ was evolving toward an "Ozawa dictatorship" where the Prime Minister and the Cabinet were just so much democratic window dressing. Since Ozawa could not conceivably be good at everything, having him responsible for everything seemed less a matter of efficiency and more a matter of jealous megalomania.
Monday's horrific opinion polls results (to read all about the carnage in English, go here and here. For Japanese, go here and here and here) seems to indicate that the electorate had crossed a crucial threshold. Voters are no longer merely doubtful about wisdom of the DPJ holding a majority of seats in the House of Councillors; they indeed believe that giving the DPJ control of both houses would be undesirable.
It is interesting therefore that the PM and Ozawa are suddenly talking about the revival of an independent party policy crafting apparatus. With a well-deserved electoral spanking for power mongering now staring them in the face -- the fate that befell Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and the LDP in 2007 -- the PM and Secretary-General Ozawa are all of a sudden of the opinion that, yes, perhaps the DPJ policy drafting needs to be a little more democratic. They have proposed the establishment of a Diet Member Policy Research Study Meeting (Giin Seisaku Kenkyukai) open to all DPJ Diet members. Attendees would learn about new party policy initiatives from policy specialists and research and lobby groups. The Diet members would then be able offer their views of the proposals to the "Manifesto Planning Committee" (Manifesuto Kikaku Iinkai), a joint party\government entity comprised of the DPJ's manifesto realization group headed by Senior Vice Secretary-General Takashima Yoshimitsu and the National Policy Unit.
The likelihood that such an ad hoc, "everyone's welcome to join in" meeting will promote a less capricious crafting of policies is small. Nevertheless, establishing the research group sure sounds policy drafting is going to be more inclusive and open. In light of the unnecessary concentration of power in Ozawa's hands since the election, the proposal does represent a tiny step toward a healthier balance between centralization and empowerment within the DPJ.
If the ruling DPJ duarchy can have a few more these brainstorms over the next few weeks, who knows, the outlook for the summer's elections may be less bleak.