Thursday, September 02, 2010

Japan's Presidential Election

Japan is a parliamentary democracy, with the Emperor as titular head of state. That being said, the country is suddenly slambang in the midst of a presidential election. There are two candidates, each with a distinct ideological cant and consequent distinct set of policy prescriptions. Both have their core supporters who will vote for them come hell or high water, leaving the pair battling, quite publicly, for the allegiance of undecided voters. Unlike battles of the old days, where intra-party clashes were solved with promises of Cabinet and party posts or even exchanges of cash, the successful candidate in this election likely have to win the affection of those with the votes capable of putting him over the 50% line. To capture these hearts and minds, both candidates are taking to the airwaves. Prime Minister Kan Naoto was on the 9 p.m. evening NHK newscast last night; tonight it will be his challenger Ozawa Ichiro's turn.

This is what political realignment a la Japonaise looks like, folks.

On the one side of the ledger is Ozawa. He leads the fundamentalist wing of the party, those who believe that the party's fate and future are indelibly written down in the party Manifesto of 2009. Either the party follows through on what it promised, or it is finished, seems to be the belief.

There is, of course, a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem here. Ozawa personally recruited many of the candidates who following the election are now the members of his camp. He was also the final decision maker on what got into the 2009 Manifesto. To what extent his supporters' faith in the Manifesto comes from Ozawa's having been the 2009 Manifesto's primary author and where Ozawa's championing of the 2009 Manifesto makes him the candidate worthy of his supporters's support, is a question nobody really wants to ask.

On the other side of the ledger are the revisionists and their standard bearer Kan, known from the very first days of the party as "the pragmatic one." Kan voters are the members of the DPJ who believed from the outset that the 2009 Manifesto was provisional - a nice collection of mutually incoherent ideas that taken together could attract enough votes to the DPJ's candidate to win the party control of the country. Seen negatively, these DPJ members saw the Manifesto as facetious, a largely cynical means of fooling traditional Liberal Democratic Party voters and the undecided into abandoning the familiar and accommodating Liberal Democratic Party and instead trying out the Democratic alternative. Once in power, however, the revisionists knew thet DPJ would have to water dowm most the promises made in the Manifesto on the grounds that they were either fiscally irresponsible or simply illogical.

Currently the revisionists control the government and the party, holding virtually all the major posts. Their hold is tenuous, or more tenuous than it should be, due to Kan's having been suckered by the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Finance into talking about raising the consumption tax -- a not terribly unpopular plan now, but a few months ago political poison -- on the eve of the House of Councillors election. When the party did unusually poorly in that election, the fundamentalist wing found themselves with the ammunition necessary to attack Kan and his followers for having sunk the party's fortunes, losing the supposedly vital prize of coalition control of the House of Councillors.

That the battle for the House of Councillors probably had been lost months earlier, at a time when the fundamentalists themselves largely held control, due to the fecklessness of their prime minister Hatoyama Yukio and his and Ozawa's myriad legal troubles, has been neatly swept under the rug.

There is much good news to be found in this new-style presidential battle.

First, the battle is between centrist views. What Ozawa and the DPJ fundamentalists are insisting must happen is not radical change -- merely a reversion to the promises that the party has already made to the voters, ones which the voters ostensibly ratified in 2009 by their voting so many Democrats into office.

The revisionists, for their part, are not asking for a complete rollback of all of the DPJ's 2009 promises. What they are requesting is that the party be realistic, fulfilling promises to the extent that is justifiable both politically and fiscally.

Second, the battle is being fought out in the open over policy rather than in the private rooms of high-class restaurants over spoils. There are two crystal clear policy platforms, with little or no prevarication over what certain words mean or do not mean in terms of the election. Furthermore, although there is no direct voting, there is a huge chunk of vote -- 300 points for the party members and 100 points for local assemblymen -- will fall one way or the other depending expressions of public satisfaction or dissatisfaction with one candidate or the other.

Third, this is not a life-or-death struggle for the DPJ. The persons who have aligned themselves with Kan, the party moderates and fiscal conservatives, survived and even thrived under three years of Ozawa's leadership of the party. They thrived under the puppet prime ministership of Hatoyama Yukio. They are not going to bolt the party just because Ozawa is in charge again.

As for the Ozawa supporters, while they are fanatical in some senses, they are not stupid. Most are from marginal districts where the voters could just as soon switch back to voting for the LDP in the next House of Representatives election, as they did in this year's House of Councillor's election. Jumping ship with Ozawa following an Ozawa defeat could easily mean a quick fall into political irrelevance and electoral defeat.

Both sides in the presidential race, both fundamentalist and revisionist, furthermore cling to a main branch of mainstream DPJ philosophy. To the fundamentalist's credit, they hold fast to the belief that promises mean must something, that a pledge to the public is not just a tool to be discarded once the election is over.

The revisionists believe, on the other hand, that promises have to be grounded in a finite reality -- that one cannot promise one's resources, both financial and political, to one interest group, then turn around and promise those same resources to another group. They believe in tradeoffs: that one must sell sacrifice and offer promises in equal measure. In this, they have the support of the vast majority of the public, who when asked about the promises in the 2009 Manisfesto, would be satisfied if they were honored "to a certain extent" (aru teido ni).

Both of these line of thought -- that one must keep one's word to the people and one must limit one's promises to the achievable -- are part of the core set of founding principles of the Democratic Party. Even now they serve a useful contrasts between the values of the DPJ and those of its predecessor in power, the Liberal Democratic Party.

So when one sees quotations about the closeness of the Democratic Party is to fissioning, one should know that it will not be along ideological lines. Some agitators within the party's ranks may talk about unbridgeable differences. Such comments, however, should be viewed as merely the individual in question stuffing whatever comes to mind into the voracious maw of the media beast.

Moreover, while the image of some of the members of the revisionist camp may seem to be rigid "my way or the highway" types, they are for the most part patient, somewhat older members of the party, willing to bid their time after a reversal of fortune. They know that in politics what goes up must come down. Ozawa's allies and followers, while numerous, are for the most part decidedly lesser politicians than those in the anti-Ozawa camp. While the pro-Ozawa partisans will be insufferably triumphant in early days following an Ozawa victory, their own shortcomings and inadequacies will soon compell the party leadership to call upon the talents of the party's competent anti-Ozawa first-stringers.

The wild card in this presidential race and its aftermath is, of course, that one of the candidates is Ozawa Ichiro, Japan's least popular politician. If Ozawa prevails in the intra-party contrast, the populace at large will feel at least a sense of letdown, if not out-and-out disgust. The election as virtual president, not of the DPJ but, as Kan relentlessly points out, the nation, of a man who is broadly mistrusted and disliked, will likely leave the populace feeling cheated, no matter how legitimately the election is carried out under party rules.


Dan Slater said...

Surely the most important point, which you don't address :( is whether it's possible to be PM merely by winning a pary elections? In the past, the unseated incumbent has triggered a General Election - as they should.

Fat Tony said...

"If Ozawa prevails in the intra-party contrast, the populace at large will feel at least a sense of letdown, if not out-and-out disgust."

Well, until he actually moves on policy. Remember, before the funding scandal people were quite positive about a DPJ government under Ozawa. My sense is they can be forgiving if he actually turns out to be quite a good leader. Lordy knows, he's had enough time to prepare for the role. Hell they may even turn on those calling for "unfair" investigations into funding irregularities. While I don't want to infer policy comparisons, Tanaka was a crim, but before Koizumi came along, people still spoke about him with great affection.

Dan, why would the election of a new PM be grounds for a general election?

Dan Slater said...

Tony, Because the PM, unlike the President of the party, is meant to represent the whole nation - and Oz CLEARLY does not have a mandate from the population. Historical parallel:

Anonymous said...

"Remember, before the funding scandal people were quite positive about a DPJ government compared to an LDP one."


But seriously, at the time the LDP was still in power and desperately incompetent, so anything looked better than that -- even the Shadow Shogun becoming PM.

"Tanaka was a crim, but before Koizumi came along, people still spoke about him with great affection."

Only if you were from Niigata.

Joe said...

Dan, while the PM is supposed to represent the country as a whole, the electorate does not choose the prime minister, neither here in Japan, nor in any other parliamentary democracy. The leader of the party that can command the most seats after an election is given the opportunity to form the government. The leader of the party is chosen by party members, with the details differing from country to country.

It might violate the spirit of democracy to a certain extent by not having a general election right after a leadership change, especially if a party plays Musical PMs for five years, it is by no means violating the laws.

And right now the Japanese electorate is not in the mood for a general election. I think most people right want a prime minister who will serve out his mandate, and then let the chips fall where they may in three years time. I know I sure as hell do.