The Japanese PM run-off and the weekend’s media through a Rumsfeldian lens

There is a high likelihood that today’s DPJ presidential election will proceed to a run-off (決選投票) between the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes from the first round of voting. The meeting at the Hotel Otani to decide the next Japanese prime minister will start at roughly 11am Japan time, with 50 minutes put aside for speeches from the candidates, and voting to start soon after the speeches at around 12.20. By approximately 1.10 we should know if anyone has achieved the unlikely goal of 199 votes (50% plus 1 with the upper and lower house speakers sitting out) majority over all of the other candidates. If as expected this is not reached the top two vote-getters will face-off in the second round, meaning roughly 2pm might be a good time to tune in for the result if one has access to television.

Media reports throughout the weekend suggest that the run-off will be contested between the top vote-getter, predicted to be Kaieda Banri who has received both Hatoyama and Ozawa’s support (the “anti-mainstream” group or 非主流派), and either Finance Minister Noda or former Foreign Minister Maehara. The media is then predicting that the “mainstream” faction (主流派) will then pursue the not unexpected strategy of combining their votes for the second round to give whichever of their candidates who finishes in second place a chance to win the run-off.

One interesting development according to the media’s reporting this weekend is that rather than Maehara being the second-place favourite, Noda might well be pulling ahead.

The Asahi was not alone in reporting that Noda might have enough backing to make it into the second round. According to their investigation (jp) while Kaieda has the backing of at least 130 eligible voters, Noda might have as many as 80 voters backing him, with Maehara just behind at around 60-70. Minister of Agriculture Kano is predicted to pick up 30-40 with Mabuchi perhaps lucky to get much more than the support of the 20 DPJ members who offered up their signatures to allow Mabuchi to enter the race in the first place. The Mainichi found similar results in its investigation here (jp).

Even taking the above at mathematical face value suggests that the outcome is anything but obvious. However there are other reasons for hesitancy is making bold predictions (one way or another) about today’s outcomes. Below I describe some of the known unknowns.

Does Ozawa have a “Noda” strategy?

This is the idea that in a run-off between an Ozawa candidate and Maehara Seiji, Ozawa suspects that his candidate would lose to Maehara. When faced with the stark choice of two candidates, DPJ members may be tempted to think about how a Maehara administration might improve the party’s long-term prospects more than a Kaieda administration, even if they do not particularly favour Maehara as a person. However, in a Noda-Kaieda run-off the lack of public popularity of both candidates takes this factor out of the equation.

If Ozawa is truly as good at counting the votes as some argue, then he may therefore be tempted to throw some support behind Noda in the first round, perhaps by getting 30 or 40 of his group to vote for Noda and possibly eliminating Maehara. This would in theory leave enough votes for Kaieda to still take first place, but by a much smaller margin. For this strategy to work two assumptions are important. One is that Ozawa does have control over his group, and the second is that the pre-poll vote counting that media agencies such as the Asahi above have conducted do not already include some “Ozawa” supporters in Noda’s tally.

Ozawa and the magical “130”

Related to the above, does Ozawa really have the undivided loyalty of 130 DPJ Diet members? This has been a subject of debate for some time and there are good reasons to doubt it. First of all, various insiders have put the number at something more like 70 rather than 130. Since the 2009 election and the decrease in DPJ popularity, 1st term Diet members have slowly but surely gained independence from Ozawa’s control whether by initiative or accident. Indeed as discussed previously here there are a fair number of first term Diet members in both the DPJ and the LDP who have come together to despair at the senior leaderships in both of their respective parties. Many supposedly loyal to Ozawa might not be distancing themselves from Ozawa in terms of outright attacking their “master” – after all he can still dispense favours, advice and money which any self-interested but unknown Diet member may desire to access. We cannot however assume that their votes are a given, especially because these are also the most vulnerable members if an election had to be called due to another unpopular PM being unable to push the legislative process along. Secondly, there is indeed evidence of the tentative and “soft”  nature of Ozawa’s support base in recent DPJ elections. In the 2010 “full” DPJ presidential vote it was widely predicted that Ozawa would beat Kan in the Diet member vote section, while Kan would eventually triumph due to the support of local office holders and paid-up DPJ members. Kan did triumph but he also received a majority of Diet members votes also, who were wary of going too much against public opinion. Secondly the no-confidence vote in June of this year also shows that the Ozawa “coalition” is very unstable – it took only a vague promise from Kan to Hatoyama for a large number of the Diet members to lose their nerve and reverse their position in favour of a vote of confidence for the Kan administration. If another group in the party was to come out in the lead up today, publicly or otherwise, in favour of perhaps Maehara, or strike a deal with the mainstream candidates, then we could well see another strong reversal.

It may even be possible  that some suggested to the media they would vote in favour of Kaieda in the preliminary stages but were waiting to gauge what the overall mood in the party was- if there any doubts about Ozawa’s numbers felt within the party, or a faction is convinced to declare their support in a last minute deal with either Noda or Maehara,  then anything may happen.

What about the “middle of the road” factions?

Adding to the potential for instability, which would probably hurt Kaieda more than Noda or Maehara, are the voting declarations made by 4 of the groups unaffiliated to any of the candidates. Those members belonging to the groups comprised of former DSP (en) members (approximately 30 members), and former SDP members (20 members), have declared or indicated that their members would vote independently. Likewise with the Tarutoko Shinji and former PM Hata groups, which both come to approximately 20 members each.  Thus we already we have 90 undecided voters. The Mabuchi and Kano groups will then become a big factor in any run-off, where a last minute deal with one or both may be able to swing the votes to one candidate or the other.

Is Agriculture Minister Kano in or out of the race?

Conventional logic suggests that he hasn’t got a chance. However a number of voices, including the Yomiuri suggests that Kano may be more viable than many suspect (jp).  In fact the Yomiuri article suggests that Kaieda might be vulnerable to losing the run-off irrespective of whether Kano, Maehara, or Noda wins second place and is now looking quite desperately at trying to win in the first round, as difficult as that maybe.

Kano is generally seen to be more favourable towards the “anti-mainstream” than the Noda and Maehara’s group. If Maehara and or Noda wins then Kano’s group would likely side with Kaieda or remain neutral (ie vote independently) rather than join the “mainstream” candidate. This would mean that the unaffiliated and Mabuchi voters would decide the outcome of the run-off which would likely advantage a Maehara candidature  in particular as these kinds of voters are more likely to consider public opinion than those loyal to one candidate or another. However, in a variation of Ozawa’s “Noda” strategy, if Kano makes it to the second round there is also fear within the Ozawa camp that the mainstream faction will side with Kano as the lesser of two evils. In this case Kano might be a dark horse – with the support of the mainstream faction he would be close to the 199 number, requiring only Mabuchi’s groups’ support or the halving of the unaffiliated votes to make it past 199. In this scenario even a deal between the Ozawa group and Mabuchi (by no means a certain thing in itself)  might not be sufficient. This lack of confidence within the Ozawa group shows just how strong Ozawa antipathy is, which for Maehara and Noda is not a burden they have to bear. Might the many known unknowns combined with this antipathy and/or knowledge of this antipathy lead to a last minute abandoning of the “Ozawa” candidate in favour of Maehara and or Noda? Might it even happen in round one?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Ditto with any result, for that matter due to those unknown unknowns.

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8 thoughts on “The Japanese PM run-off and the weekend’s media through a Rumsfeldian lens

  1. In the last election, Kan won the Diet members vote, barely, but his opponent was the extremely weak Tarutoko. This time the Ozawa-Hatoyama people have a relatively strong candidate in Kaieda. I don’t see much chance of his losing.

    • I see what you are saying, but the vote between Kan and Tarutoko was the election prior to the Upper House elections, where Kan defeated Tarutoko quite handily among Diet members. In the election subsequent to that Kan took out the Diet members vote, barely, despite Ozawa himself running in the election. I think Kaieda has a realistic chance but the history of DPJ elections, if you include the no-confidence vote, does not suggest that DPJ factions are anything like the LDP ones, so I’m gonna stick with “no comment” until 2pm Japan time today :-)

  2. Pingback: Japan’s annual prime minister contest: not exactly the Super Bowl, but just as frequent. | Hoofin to You!

  3. The Kano and Mabuchi groups turned out to be the deciding factor after all, but in favor of Noda, which frankly surprises (and disappoints) me. I guess the DPJ is even more conservative than I thought. So following on Usain Bolt’s disqualification, we now have an election result driving me to dispair.

      • Drink is the better of the two options! Kano going for Noda is the big surprise for me. I wonder what we will see when Noda announces his cabinet early next month? The US will likely be very concerned about the TPP right about now since Kano was the decisive vote and likely a deal…and the Chinese more so about other matters…..

  4. There’s an irony here in that Maehara got into the race because he believed Noda couldn’t win against the Ozawa forces, which both turned out not to be true and also cost him support, since he drew the ire of Kan’s loyal backers.

    • That’s a good point. Maehara decision-making and reasoning was definitely a bit odd on this one. That said, losing today may be in his own long-term interests. Maybe.

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