Sunday, June 08, 2008

Ozawa's Sour Send-Off

"In walking from one end of the country to the other, the voices cry out to me loudly, ‘Please do something about the eldercare insurance system!’ Can we just let the Diet session come to an end like this?"

Democratic Party leader Ozawa Ichirō, speaking to fellow members of the DPJ leadership council, as reported in the Yomiuri Shimbun of June 5, 2008, p. 4 .
Yes, Ozawa-san and his party could do "something" – they could cooperate with the ruling coalition to craft an emergency compromise bill ameliorating at least some of deficiencies, perceived or real, of the new eldercare insurance system.

However, fixing the existing system was not under discussion on Wednesday night. Instead, the leaders of the main opposition party were meeting to decide whether or not to deploy against the prime minister a constitutionally inert chastisement of the government: a House of Councillors censure motion.

The sudden revival of a plan to pass a censure motion against the PM in the waning days of the Diet Session is the clearest indication yet that Prime Minister Fukuda has reshuffled the political deck. By going behind the backs of the leadership councils of the ruling coalition parties to unilaterally declare a one year lifespan for the nominally 10 year long plan for road construction finance and by instructing his negotiators to accept Democratic Party-proposed changes to the law on managing the bureaucracy, Fukuda took away the Democratic Party’s biggest electoral cudgel: the claim that Fukuda is "just another Liberal Democratic Party tool of power brokers."

Confronted by a Prime Minister willing not only to brush off those in his party intent on reinstitutionalizing patronage politics but also willing to incorporate Democratic Party ideas into legislation (Sound like any other prime minister we know, a recent one, maybe?) the leaders of the Democratic Party have lost their political bearings.

The post August 2007 DPJ has relied upon a particular master narrative--that the Democratic Party is engaged in principled resistance against the policies of a ruling coalition beholden to narrow interests, be they foreign (the Bush Administration) or domestic (the road construction lobby, the Ministry of Finance). In the Democratic narrative the LDP-New Komeitō ruling coalition sacrifices the national interest in order to please the narrow interests—and is willing to go even so far as an Article 59 override of the expressed will of the House of Councillors in order to show its loyalty to these narrow interests. "Ergo," the narrative concludes, "we need a House of Representatives election to end the reign of the special interests and restore government for the benefit of the people."

Throughout the fall and winter, the ruling coalition has been the stubborn facilitator of the DPJ's political program—seemingly bowing to U.S. pressure to reinstate the mission in the Indian Ocean and clearly kowtowing to the road construction lobby in the gasoline levy and road construction plan bills.

Now, however, a new, pliant Fukuda Yasuo (with Cabinet support rates in the 20s, he could hardly be anything else but pliant) seems to have accepted the DPJ's main premise: that the ruling coalition has indeed been too solicitous of narrow interests and must work on behalf of the country—even if that means accommodating DPJ policies.

When your political enemy suddenly embraces you and tells you, "I'm sorry, you were right, I was wrong, let's do it your way!" -- you are non-plussed. When your political enemy does the above and you had, in order to build up your wall of political resistance, brought together a gang of fringe elements and kooks whose only commonality was their common enemy—you are in serious trouble.

This danger was hammered home last week when the People's New Party announced that it would not longer caucus with the DPJ, the Socialists and the Communists unless those parties united to oppose the nomination of Ikeo Kazuhito to the board of governors of the Bank of Japan. Ikeo had been a supporter of the privatization of the post office, making him utterly unacceptable to the PNP, the party of those expelled from the LDP for their opposition to postal privatization.

The loss of the support of the PNP shrinks by four votes the majority the opposition holds in the House of Councillors. It is not enough to throw control of the House of Councillors to the LDP-New Komeito coalition. Since the ruling coalition nominated Ikeo as well, the chance of the PNP will throw its lot in with the ruling coalition is zero.

So no big deal, right?

Wrong. The loss of four conservative votes tips the balance of power in the House of Councillors. First, it brings the opposition majority ever closer to the 51% line. This increases the leverage of the Socialists and the Communists vis-à-vis the Democrats, who need the Socialist and Communist votes in order to stop LDP initiatives. Second, the Democratic Party has lost a convenient excuse—"I am sorry, we cannot do ( X) because it is too leftist. It will cause the PNP to bolt from the unified front." – that could be deployed whenever the Socialists and/or the Communists started making demands too left wing for many in the DPJ.

Passing a motion of censure against the Prime Minister is the DPJ's way of reassuring the other members of the anti-LDP alliance that the DPJ is not considering accommodation with the LDP. That the DPJ's steadfast opposition to the LDP can be demonstrated without the act being very substantial (though the Communists, ever the legalists in the politics, are wary, wondering, "Doesn't passing a censure motion at the end of the regular Diet session mean that those voting for the motion are also committing themselves to not cooperating in any way with the prime minister in the extraordinary session in the fall?") is icing on the cake.

A censure motion also closes the regular session on a down note, reminding the voters (or so the opposition hopes) of how rancorous this session has been...though one would think that reminding the voters via an act of unforced aggression against the PM might prompt some voters to reconsider who exactly was at fault for the turmoil over the last few months.

But Ozawa's observation quoted at the beginning of this post points to a more fundamental problem facing the DPJ in the summer and early autumn—the clock is ticking on post-Koizumi LDP bungling. Prime Minister Fukuda has injected new life into his administration by borrowing the Koizumi trick of placing himself between diehard elements of the LDP on one side and the DPJ on the other—stealing the DPJ's thunder without surrending the microphone. Telegenic Koizumi kids, particularly the "Tokyo WOMEN" trio of Koike Yuriko, Inoguchi Kuniko and Sato Yukari—along with the more frail but still startlingly impressive Kawaguchi Yoriko--are shoehorning themselves back into political news stories again. Nakagawa Hidenao, Koizumi's eminence grise at the Policy Research Council, has a new book out on furthering political reform. On Tuesday, to the horror of both his nominal faction leader Machimura Nobutaka (formally on leave from the post because of his service as Chief Cabinet Secretary) and former faction leader Mori Yoshirō, Nakagawa established a new, 33 member pro-growth, anti-consumption tax rise study group, offering an alternative to the Machimura-Yosano Kaoru-Tanigaki Sadakazu mainline bent on wiping out budget deficits through a dramatic increase in the consumption tax.

[Opposition to hikes in the consumption tax has resulted in a strange political alliance between revenue-hungry bureaucrats, anti-smoking activists and Nakagawa--who both smokes like a chimney and has no compunctions against kicking bureaucratic butt—in support of a tripling of taxes on tobacco.]

If the Koizumi brain trust has regrouped for a comeback—and after having gone through the Revisionist Radicals, then Ye Olde Wise Men, the LDP only has the Carnival of Nobodies left before it has to go back to the Koizumi Korps—then Ozawa and the DPJ will see their chance at a seizure of power slipping from their grasp. The DPJ has benefited mightily from an arrogant, narcissistic and clueless LDP. Were a general election to be held today, the LDP-New Komeitō coalition would likely fall short of 50% majority in the House of Representatives, forcing the formation an LDP-DPJ grand coalition—if not an outright DPJ-led government.

If, however, the prime minister hosts a successful, substantial summit -- and with all the advance work on mega-problems in energy, the rise of the BRICs and global warming there is more than a decent chance the Toyako Summit will be a damned significant one – if the PM keeps relations with the Chinese and the South Koreans on an even keel throughout the testing time of the Olympic Games; and, to top it off, if the PM manages to rein in the worst elements of this own party (through intimidation and a threat of replacing all his current advisors with Koizumi loyalists) then the DPJ will lose its greatest asset: a tin-eared, brick-stupid LDP.

For Ozawa, whose knowledge of the score in the long run has always led to carelessness about losing points over inexplicable nonsense in the present, the possibility of the LDP slipping away from its doom once again is unbearable. Better go forth with the censure motion, even at the cost of appearing spiteful. Perhaps the censure motion will cause the PM to lose his cool out of exasperation and hurt (let us not forget the PM's "crying in frustration" episode in the Diet) leading him to govern badly again, precipitating a political crisis.

Adding up all the pluses and minuses, it must be worth a try.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Has a summit ever impacted Japanese politics? I doubt it has ever mattered in the US.

In the end, though, it seems you disagree with the DPJ's strategy of letting the LDP be the LDP. I would expect doing nothing should be sufficient to cut the LDP down to size, but it may or may not enable them to gain a majority.