Friday, August 22, 2008

Welcome to My Illusion

It went from "NODA!" to "NO!...Duuuuuh" all so quickly.

Tobias Harris has been providing the timely reporting (here and here) and Okumura Jun the magisterial analysis of the collapse of Noda Yoshihiko's bid to run against Ozawa Ichirō for the post of leader of the Democratic Party of Japan.

However, I find cannot agree with either gentleman's view of the root cause of the collapse.

The narrative in the newspaper accounts is that Noda was ready and rearing to go. He had to withdraw his bid, however, as his supporters grew fearful of reprisals at the hands of Ozawa and his supporters.

Fearful of reprisals? This is not Fatah versus Hamas here.

Besides, Ozawa will need strong candidates in every district and in the proportional lists if the party is to seize control of the House of Representatives in the next election. Why would he do anything to hurt the standing of even one of his party members? Especially since too many of them - yes, I am looking at you Okada Katsuya and Maehara Seiji - are more than capable of hurting themselves.

Several DPJ members have been either whining about Ozawa's policies from the sidelines or been given hectares of column space in the monthlies to snipe about Ozawa's reckless promises. That these disaffected and disgruntled members of the DPJ have, one by one, ducked the opportunity to challenge Ozawa is proof, for Harris, of the personal "cravenness" of these ostensible Young Turks.

For Okumura, at least in terms of his headline, the DPJ apparat has pressured the Young Turks into abandoning their attempts to discuss Ozawa's leadership on the grounds that dissent in and of itself is bad. Or as Okumura-san puts it:

Open dissent, or even careless speculation unchecked, can only make the leader and leadership look weak and vacillating, as the Fukuda administration has amply demonstrated.
Noda's retreat, in Okumura's interpretation, was the product of a structural weakness within Japanese politics wherein the image of the leader is too fragile to brook the discussion of policy options, much less the discussion of the possibility that the leader has made a mistake.

I take a sunnier view of both the characters of politicians and the resilience of the status of leaders. Noda's challenge did not fail because he is surrounded by cowards or because Ozawa is a naked emperor.

Noda and the others before him have been convinced to give up because an open discussion of the party's political platform is damaging to the party's chances in the next election.

If one is talking about the DPJ's image, what would the public make of a party which, after it has won the most important and shocking electoral win of its existence, rewards the architect of that win with a pink slip? Would not the party want to promote instead an air of stability and, indeed, sanity?

The argument for knocking Ozawa off his perch on style points is not compelling. He may be autocratic, dismissive of others and a poor public speaker. He also cobbles together improbable electoral wins.

What the rebellious elements of the party have been worrying about are the possible electoral consequences of the public appreciating that under Ozawa, the DPJ has lost its soul.

Now this is a non-stupid point. The foundation myth of the DPJ is that it is the party of "honest, hard-working, knowledgeable folks willing to make the hard decisions for the good of the nation." The policy wonks in the party have thus been in a panic over the near certainty that the public -- with the help of the pro-LDP, anti-Ozawa press -- would become aware of the promises that Ozawa made to various constituencies in order to win in control of the House of Councillors. The restive elements were certain that Ozawa's baramaki ("throwing roses before the crowds") budget-busting assurances would be electoral poison. Once the urban and suburban voters appreciated where the the funds for the baramaki proposals would be coming from -- their wallets and purses -- and where they would be going to -- the wealth-destroying economic parasites of the rural areas -- the DPJ would fail to win back the hearts of the urban and suburban voters.

A non-unreasonable argument, except for one glaring weakness: it assumes that Ozawa is being honest to rural voters when he promises to succor them in their time of need.

There is no reason to believe that this true.

Yes, he is from a rural district himself. Yes, he is a product of the Tanaka Kakuei school of politico-economics.

Nevertheless, he played a trick on the rural areas in 2007. He made loads of promises fully cognizant he had no way of honoring the promises he was making. The Constitution and the the ruling coalition's majority in the House of Representatives gives the DPJ zero input in matters of the budget.

So Ozawa could not deliver on his budget-busting promises -- and surprise, surprise -- he did not.

It is Ozawa's intent to go back to the rural voters, the ones who voted for the Democrats in 2007 praying that the Democrats would bring the revival of special subsidies, tax cuts or government handouts, and say to them, "'Sorry, as you know, I have argued long and hard for you to get the help you deserve but the b_____ds in the House of Representatives have turned down every one of my proposals. We need your votes to kick these b_____ds out of office."

Ozawa is guessing -- and it is a reasonable guess -- that he can go to the well twice with the same set of promises.

In that case, the last thing the DPJ needs is a meaningless contest -- meaningless in that Ozawa's victory is preordained -- where the challenger shines a harsh light on the ugly truth that the party's budget numbers do not add up.

That most certainly will hurt the party's image in the urban and suburban districts -- and also likely knock a few points off the DPJ's proportional vote in the blocs.

So why go there?

What has sealed the deal for Ozawa in the last two weeks is the ruling coalition's abandonment of budget balance targets in favor of a large-scale fiscal stimulus package. The accusation of baramaki had been the club the ruling coalition was holding in reserve, waiting for its chance to draw it out and beat Ozawa and the Democrats over the head with it. Partly due to the sudden rise of the New Komeitō's influence, partly in response to the bad second quarter GDP numbers, the ruling coalition is tossing its hardwon reputation of fiscal probity into the dumpster -- and in so doing has removed the last objection to Ozawa's reelection.

With the threat of being labeled the baramaki party in retreat, which is more dangerous: shining a light on the party's inconsistencies, or ignoring them?

It is clear: holding an election poses greater risks than not holding one.

It just took Noda a bit longer than most to come to understand this.

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