Monday, April 28, 2008

After the Yamaguchi #2 election

In a hotly contested race portrayed as a referendum against the government of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, Democratic Party of Japan candidate Hiraoka Hideo defeated the Liberal Democratic Party candidate Yamamoto Shigetarō by 10 percentage points in the Yamaguchi District #2 by-election. Turnout was a spectacular 69.0% of the electorate, the highest turnout for a stand-alone by-election since the system reforms of 2000.

I was hoping to write a "Dos and Don'ts" list from the results of the election. However, I can only think of a list of "Don'ts", namely:

- Don't run a newbie against local three-time winner who's only defeat, and a narrow one it was, came as the result of the Koizumi landslide of 2005

- Don't select a former Construction Ministry bureaucrat as your candidate while trying to say, with a straight face, "We have not abandoned reform."

- Don't fool yourself with "Yamaguchi is a rural, conservative bastion" type prefecture-based thinking when the district in question has a huge U.S. Marines (and soon U.S. Navy) base in it

- Don't start compulsory medical care deductions from the pensions of seniors over 75 years of age one week before an election if you have not made sure beforehand that the pension record of every single person over 75 in the district is in order first

- Don't expect to hold on to a Diet seat when you send your best candidate, the incumbent, on a career-sacrificing mission to capture the mayoralty of the district's largest city (see U.S. Marines base issue above)

- Don't announce ahead of time that you are going to vote for the reapplication of the gasoline tax no matter what public opinion might be--or without a "if-I-do-not-get-my-way-I-will-dissolve-the-Diet" public pledge from the Prime Minister on the passage of a revision of the road construction plan bill

While spin masters in the LDP will try to downplay the election as having been a lost cause from the beginning, the weight of office has probably become very, very heavy on the shoulders of LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei. As a holdover from the First Abe Administration, Ibuki is something of anomaly in the current administration--appointed to the #2 party position not because of his political savvy but because he is a faction head and a relic Meiji State fantabulist (i.e. Ibuki signals to the revisionist wing of the LDP that the party will not ignore their needs and concerns). Ibuki's only refuge is that he is not formally responsible for the outcomes of elections anymore, as he would have been in the old days. Koga Makoto's insistence he be given the post of Election Measures Chairman (senkyo taisaku inchō) and that the status of that office be raised to the same level as sanyaku posts shifts at least part of the blame for the defeat on to Koga's shoulders.

Even if this loss does not trigger a further major erosion of the popularity of the Fukuda Cabinet, it will almost certainly increase the timidity of the Cabinet and the ruling coalition as regards policy innovation and implementation. When you are down, everything difficult looks like a threat. When you are struggling, every challenge looks too unpopular to undertake.

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