Friday, November 09, 2007

May all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out

It has been an ugly last two months, with both of the main parties undergoing leadership meltdowns.

The question is not why did these leadership breakdowns occur. The question is why they did not occur sooner.

The answer to the question seems deceptively simple: they did not take place because until now the ruling coalition could, at the end of the day, count on legislation passing both houses unmolested.

The LDP had to seek legislative compromises in the 60s and 70s to avoid strikes and mass demonstrations. But in this more passive and peaceful era, when the Socialist and Communist parties cannot set hundreds of thousands to marching, the lack of an implicit threat of internal disorder long ago extinguished the LDP's desire to accommodate the left, the mewling of the editorial board of The Asahi Shimbun notwithstanding. In these fat later days, the LDP lost the knack to even care about the opposition's views.

But even LDP pig-headedness could not explain the mess of this autumn. Even parties without a recent past of cooperation can pull themselves up to compromise on behalf of generally popular or absolutely necessary legislation. What inflated party policy disputes into party leadership catastrophes was that both parties simultaneously were still taking new model leaders out for a test drive.

Having driven Japan into the ditch with patronage politics, the LDP needed a new type of leader to knit together the countryside, the heads of industry and the urban salaried worker. They settled upon the urbane, fiscal conservative hawk. The first attempt at this new kind of leader was the pompadoured and pugnacious Hashimoto Ryūtarō. He might have enjoyed a reign as long and as glorious as that of Koizumi Jun'ichiro had he not listened to the worry warts of the Finance Ministry and raised the consumption tax. The second attempt was the celebrated Mr. K. The third was Abe Shinzō, the first of the knee-jerk, cockeyed, Meiji State fantabulist, my-kokka-right-or-wrong reactionary revivalists--a Hashimoto Ryūtarō without a sense of play (Ah what Hashimoto would do to Mickey Kantor, not just once but over and over and over again...)

Amaterasu knows, there will be others.

The DPJ drafted Ozawa, the ultimate outsider, to come bail them out. After the party's straightest arrows--Kan Naoto, Okada Katsuya and Maehara Seiji--blew themselves up with their hypertrophied earnestness--it was time to start not just winning hearts and minds but control and power. This Ozawa proceeded to do by expanding the DPJ's reach beyond the traditional base of urban and suburban salaried workers.

The selection of these two leaders had little impact on the political process during the first parts of their reigns. The trains Abe and Ozawa were driving were running on separate tracks; though Ozawa would yell out at Abe from time to time, telling him what a lousy driver he was.

The public's fateful decision to hand control of the House of Councillors to the Democratic Party-led coalition on July 29 put the two trains on the same track. As the trains chugged toward a predictable collision, dissatisfaction, if not sheer horror, at the choices of drivers surfaced among the party memberships.

In Abe's case disquiet surfaced immediately. Marked with the rotten smell of failure, the LDP coughed him up like a clot.

The problem posed by Ozawa has proved too difficult for the DPJ to solve. He still shines with the golden light of electoral success. That he is the representative of little more than the fraction of the human species bound within the confines of his own skin was known--but what to do about it? As the assembled party members had voted him into power, and he had achieved the members had never dreamed they could achieve, what grounds lay for his dismissal? That he talked to Prime Minister Fukuda?

It was this contradiction--between what the Democrats had always wanted to do and what they had actually done--between winning without sacrificing their principles and actually winning--that dogged and will continue to dog the DPJ. As Dr. Gerald Curtis notes in an op-ed today, the DPJ is a new party with no bench. To whom could it turn to rescue itself from itself?

I disagree with Professor Gerald Curtis on his basic premise--I find the idea of high-level policy coordination imperative. At the very least, such coordination, "a new policy framework" (shinseijitaisei)to borrow Prime Minister Fukuda's careful locution, will make sure that both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors are debating similar bills in some sort of logical sequence. At present the incentive is merely to pass what is in the party manifesto without a clue as to how or when the legislation may pass the other house.

The people certainly deserve better than that from their legislators.


Jan Moren said...

Abe's flameout is actually quite humanly understandable. That kind of post is very, very demanding, and beyond what most people can be expected to endure. One of Sweden's smaller political party leaders similarly burned themselves out a couple of years ago. Even among people that think themselves ready, surrounded by supportive people, you'll find that not everybody can handle the pressure. I'm confident you could look at the political scene of any country and find recent examples.

The only thing that distinguishes Abe from Maria Leissner in Sweden is that he wasn't just a party leader but the actual prime minister at the time. And that wasn't his fault but that of the people that chose to field him as a candidate. His breakdown is not saying anything about him (I'd had probably lasted about three days in that job, not a year) but about the people that took him there, and about the intraparty process that allowed it to happen.

I'm claiming that the LDP at this point does not have a functioning mechanism for winnowing leaders. People are chosen for their ideological stance (and Koizumi-like electability), not for their actual leadership ability and stamina. At this pace, you'll see Ishihara as a prime minister candidate before long.

In a way, DPJ has wandered the opposite way, with leaders chosen for their purity giving way for people that can actually get some kind of results under constant pressure.

Anonymous said...

"Meiji State fantabulist". You're a genius when you write about politics, MTC!

MTC said...

Janne Moren -

I am on record as having a great deal of sympathy for Abe Shinzō, the man.