The DPJ’s Third TPP Attempt? (Edited)

President Putin was unable (日) to juggle his schedule and his aides had become concerned about his “condition.” A December meeting between Putin and Noda was suddenly put off until January at the earliest. Noda was apparently also concerned about how the Russia meeting was going to affect plans to deal with the domestic political situation.

Probably. It is also likely a sign that negotiations are not progressing as well as had been hoped.

Either way, an important date was cleared from Noda’s December schedule, begging some questions regarding his strategy around calling an election.

Wasting no time, it was also revealed that Noda was now considering calling an election after all. Of course this is after having cowed the opposition into doing what they were always going to do anyway – agree to pass the budget financing bills – and got the bleating about the need to call an election stopped for one day (日). It seems that Noda has decided that the time is right to consider (after caving (日) in on the bill that would superficially fix the lower house vote disparity) dissolving the lower house in late November/December (election then likely to actually take place in January).

There has been talk in the last week of the DPJ actually already engaging in preparation/constructing an “environment” friendly for calling an election. The DPJ is going around the country over the next week to talk (日) to the public about what they have actually achieved in the last three years. Articles appeared in newspapers calling for “fresh ideas” as an implicit form of apology for the DPJ not having lived up to the manifesto and reform expectations. The party has identified that it needs to run in the election as the centrist party option and sole remaining bulwark against the “conservative” forces of Abe’s LDP, Ishihara and Hashimoto. And Noda has now dangled (日) in front of the media the idea that the nation will officially enter TPP negotiations, seemingly more plausible now that Obama has been reelected (meaning he can discuss sensitive issues regarding Japan and the TPP without worrying about the impact on key battleground states like Ohio, Michigan, etc).

The strategy, according to media reports (日), is for Noda to commit Japan to enter the TPP, and then soon after that call an election.

Let’s be sure of a couple of things.

First, Japan announcing that it will enter negotiations may not result in much progress actually being made. Whether Obama can realistically hold back US auto industry demands for “prior concessions,” which makes it close to impossible for Japan to enter the TPP, is less than clear and will require leadership/bravery on his part. In fact one source (日) suggests that the US has no intention on going back on the requirement for “prior concessions” due to the importance the Obama administration has placed on saving the auto industry in his policies and then in his campaign rhetoric against Romney. Japan will also still need to get the agreement of all of the other nations involved before actually entering negotiations. Also, now with Canada involved, which has its own protectionist interests in the agricultural sector, gaining this permission to enter negotiations is going to get somewhat harder. Obama will also have to think carefully about how discussions about Japan joining the TPP will affect any attempt to gain “fast-track” authorization for the TPP negotiations from Congress, which is a subject than cannot be put off for too long – although the slow progress, and apparently deadlocked negotiations, may provide some breathing room in terms of urgency.

Second, it may ultimately not save Noda. The LDP will likely still gain the highest number of seats in the next election. But such a strategy could have an interesting impact upon the way an election, and its immediate aftermath, unfolds, that could benefit some in the DPJ.

First, depending on the order of events, it may well enhance Noda’s ability to construct a truly “centrist” party in terms of both narrative and personnel management. Either the remaining anti-TPP advocates (日) in the DPJ will have to leave before an election will be held, or vote along with the LDP on a no-confidence motion regarding the TPP (if announced before the end of the current Diet session on November 30), which will result in the same outcome.  One less problem (日) for Noda, and he can reward those reformist, pro-TPP loyalists, with a more likely chance of being reelected.  It could even be a “less is more” outcome as a DPJ unencumbered by worrying about alienating certain interests may perversely be more electable.

If these anti-TPP DPJ members (along with – or initiated by – Ozawa’s separatists) specifically sponsor a no-confidence motion for the purposes of assailing Noda on the TPP, then the LDP will have to be careful to manage the atmospherics around this. The LDP will have to condemn Noda for making such an important, but “illegitimate” decision without consultation just before an election he had already promised to call “soon.” But the LDP will also have to articulate their own view on the TPP for electoral consumption. If Noda calls an election without even waiting for the no-confidence motion (or calls it after November 30), thereby turning the election into one about the TPP, which Abe himself is against, this to be sure will not gain the DPJ anything close to a majority, and will probably not save Noda…but it could still play well enough in public to give the DPJ a chance to gain more than they would likely right at this moment, based on this new, more coherent and “centrist” branding. With the consumption tax and the entering of TPP negotiations under his belt Noda may well be able to pick up a few votes due to an emphasis on “decisive politics” ( or “politics that can decide” if you like), no matter how unpopular the policies may be (also if Noda holds strong and calls the election “when he wants to”, this will only enhance this narrative).

As noted it will force Abe et al to make a decisive statement themselves. If they also come out in favor of the TPP then they jeopardize their ability to retake the rural seats that the DPJ managed to divert  from the LDP in 2009 and will almost certainly lose as they did in the 2010 House of Councillors election. Abe will also be mindful of under-performing in an election given that he was not even his party’s no.1 choice in the first place.  I would put my money on an anti-TPP line prevailing especially given Abe’s preexisting proclivities. If they do come out against the TPP  they will have to make a decision on just what they will do with Noda’s TPP “present” if they get back into government.

Perhaps along with the nuclear power issue, this may be the DPJ’s equivalent of the Futenma ‘leadership opportunity’ which the LDP lovingly left the DPJ to deal with along with their conflicted coalition partners in 2009. If Abe and the LDP still gain the largest number of seats in a TPP-centered election (with the LDP on one side and the DPJ on the other), and has to forge a working relationship with the likes of Hashimoto, Watanabe, and Ishihara (who all have various opinions on the TPP), then this could be a ticking time bomb that could destroy an Abe administration. Even if somehow Abe manages to avoid this and his minority government manages to preserve a likely anti-TPP line, then (as Noda has already committed Japan to negotiations) this will require Abe, one of the DC establishment’s favorite sons, to burn a few bridges. Either the Abe administration will have to drag its feet on the TPP with the long-term intention of failing, or it will have to decisively pull out of negotiations. Either option will likely greatly complicate Abe’s management of its relationship with the US, and will also likely hurt him greatly at home where there is an even split in regards to whether Japan should join TPP negotiations or not. Abe may just as quickly lose the Keidanren’s endorsement that was picked up after his election to LDP presidency. * And voters may quickly remember why they turfed out the LDP in the first place.

While the situation will have become more complex for “PM Abe” et al,** the DPJ will potentially for the first time become a coherent opposition, possibly behind a new, likely younger, leader. In theory. If this all transpires before next year’s House of Councillors election then the DPJ may well manage a mini-comeback.***

This could all be another trial balloon/political diversion for the LDP and Noda’s opponents, which could force themselves in compromising themselves. One hopes not – this is a strategy that is becoming more obvious and less effective over time and is actually now hurting the DPJ more than anyone else. To be sure the TPP “nuclear” option is also still only being “investigated” as an approach to resolving the current political deadlock – many in the DPJ still want to hang around and play a part in drafting the next budget.

But it could also be a good sign that Noda has realized there is very little to gain by loitering and being timid at this point in time, and is grasping the situation by the horns. It will also be very obvious to Noda that the “third pole parties” are precisely at this point unclear about how to deal with each other (日) and forge the common front essential for any reasonable electoral success and after election influence. Waiting too much longer may give them the time they need (and seemingly, want (日)) to iron out the differences.

We may know more about this on Wednesday, November 14, when Abe and Noda go head to head (日) in parliament. Noda, now having the LDP’s explicit support in passing the budget related bills, and implicit support on the other requirements (日)  for a lower house dissolution he had previously articulated (the fixing of the constitutional vote disparity and the establishment of a national commission on social security), will struggle to avoid being more specific on the issue of when a lower house election will be held.

* The Keidanren has essentially said (日) that this month’s East Asia Summit in Cambodia may well be a “last chance” for a meaningful TPP announcement for Japan.

** Remembering the LDP will be almost more certainly anti-TPP after the election than it will be even before it irrespective of Abe’s own views.

*** There is always the (very hopeful) possibility that the LDP will be so compromised and mismanage the situation so badly that an effective double election will be held anyway in late 2013 and that the “new” DPJ and some collection of third pole forces will be in a position to align themselves on issues of reform and have control of the lower house.

 

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