Pinning Down the LDP

What does the DPJ, and/or the opposition in general, need to do before the House of Councillors elections in the second half of the year to either have a chance of preventing the LDP gaining a majority in both houses, or, at least make it difficult for the LDP post-election to do as it wishes, potentially to the detriment of the nation?

Abe is off to a good start in terms of managing the narrative about his second stint in the PM’s chair, without having really done all that much, domestically at least. At least for now it appears that he has reversed the recent (or is it?) trend of prime ministers careening downhill in support ratings from day one (with only minor recoveries) in charge, although that may be a function of very low expectations, pessimism, and psycho-political exhaustion on the part of the Japanese citizenry. From the DPJ’s point of view, despite being punished and chastened, it is doing even worse in public opinion polls, which will likely lead to another thrashing in the July House of Councillors elections. The DPJ will have to be rather careful about the particular fights it picks, and arguably will need to cooperate on certain policy and legislative programs to gain any visibility. Being seen to be obstructive while Abe is on the upswing is, after the last two experiences of both obstructionist DPJ and LDP oppositions is going to test the public’s patience. At the very least, from the public’s point of view, the DPJ could assist in implementing policy in opposition, something which it failed to do, for reasons for which it is equally culpable, while in government.

However, the DPJ and others will be very aware that the LDP will try and only deal with the easy and/or the “popular” policy issues, or issues that make it look like it is being constructive (in contrast to the Tanigaki era), while trying to keep internal peace within the party and within the LDP-Komeito coalition until at least after 2013 HoC elections, something that the DPJ failed to do in the lead up to the 2010 HoC elections in terms of its issue selection and party management. The opposition will need to complicate this picture as much as possible, even if to save the country from a potentially rather extreme agenda.

The Abe administration has been evasive on a number of issues. Abe himself has only been prominent in foreign policy and has tightly controlled information and is managing access to  his person so as to avoid as much controversy as possible. So far his cabinet appears to have been reasonably disciplined in terms of (not making) gaffes. While Abe and his conservative proxies have sent out a number of signals regarding the more nationalist aspects of the agenda, Abe and top government officials have been saying very little about what Abe may or may not exactly do in regards to issues like changing the constitution and/or revising the constitutional ban on collective-self defense, and relooking at some of the issues and statement regarding Japan’s wartime behaviour.

The goal for the DPJ in particular will thus be to pin the Abe administration down on a variety of issues and ensure that it actually has to at least make clear statements about what it is going to do post-HoC election in terms of:

1) The TPP.

The administration has indicated that they will put off a decision until after the HoC election. It may be that the LDP is expecting that there will be realization that the TPP is too optimistic and that, after all, some “exceptions” will become allowable. There is a general sense that  2013 will probably be the last year where the different sides attempt to negotiate the most aspirational/ideal form of the TPP. Even alliance managers in DC have noted that it is unlikely the US itself will strike a free trade deal with no exceptions. Japan and the LDP will likely be ready to join if this realization does indeed come about. From the opposition’s point of view, however, letting the LDP have its own way in this regard is far too easy, especially given how much agony the DPJ suffered even just talking about maybe, possibly, joining the talks.* Pro- and anti-TPP forces will attempt to push Abe on this issue closer to the House of Councillors elections, even if just to stir dissent within the LDP itself.

2) House of Representatives Electoral Reform.

Abe made a promise to Noda when Noda called the election late last year that more thorough electoral reform would be considered in the next Diet session. Much like with Noda’s promise to hold an election “soon” around negotiations with the LDP and Komeito on consumption tax, the opposition will need to make this an issue of honesty and probity of the new government. If Abe takes up this promise AFTER the House of Councillors election, and after a majority has been secured in both houses, then it hardly needs to be said that the outcome is going to be very bleak for opposition government for some time in Japan.

3) The Murayama and Kono Statements, and the Yasukuni Shrine visit.

This is a really important issue that the DPJ in particular just cannot let the administration get away from in terms of committing decisively one way or another. Arguably this is not just to complicate things within the LDP itself, and to make the issue difficult for the Abe administration by putting some much needed daylight between the general public and the noisy revisionist base, but should be addressed as an issue of vital national importance. Japan’s competition for various nations’ affections, both in and outside Asia is going remarkably well while China is starting to make people, even former moderates and sympathizers in the region and beyond, more uncomfortable. A replacement in any way of either of the two statements, the Murayama one in particular, will eliminate almost all gains almost instantly. My personal theory is that the current talk about the various statements represents a form of “dog whistle” politics purposefully undertaken while the public is distracted during new years and by talk over “Abenomics” and the economy, that will not end up coming to anything substantial. This, other things being equal, should be mainly because Abe surely (?!) knows how bad such acts would be for Japan’s relationships with the very countries that are critical to its national interests, including his own foreign policy agenda. It may be that, irrespective of how much Abe himself would like to give this group what it wants, he will string the revisionist base a long for the meantime and give them hope – after all, who else but Abe and this particular cabinet would help them realize their dreams of “restoring Japanese pride” or whatever it is that they believe is so vital.  The issue for Abe is that the public will likely give Abe some leeway to address other issues for a period of time, but this will not last. And it would be unforgivable for the opposition to let the issue of absolute commitment (or otherwise) to the two statements slide before the July election, especially if I am wrong in terms of my personal theory. As for making an issue of a potential Abe visit to Yasukuni Jinja after the July election, this may have to depend on future events. It is likely that the direct fallout either way in the current environment domestically will be negligible, unless Abe jeopardizes an improvement in relations with China by visiting the shrine. If relations are still tense, and Chinese boats in and around the Senkakus come August, then the public may be rather unaccommodating in terms of concerning themselves with Chinese criticism on this issue. The implications for foreign policy management will be somewhat more challenging, of course, and may indirectly hurt Abe both at home and abroad, although not as bad as revision of the Murayama and Kono statements would be.

4) Constitutional Change, Security Policy, and Emergency Response.

This is a potentially complicated one for the opposition. There are first of all, actually areas of overlap in terms of what the various political groups would like to see in terms of changes to Japan’s security policy – as the Algerian disaster unfolds with a very likely high number of Japanese fatalities, this may further push the various groups together. This is one area where striking an inherently antagonistic pose to the LDP and Abe’s agenda may backfire, especially if he builds political capital through a successful, even if short-term, economic recovery and/or the implementation of a coherent (even if mistaken) economic plan and growth strategy. In order to moderate perhaps some of the more unwise elements of the agenda, the opposition may have to commit to working with the government in a proactive way and attempt to build a consensus around security policy and a timetable for constitutional revision, by embracing a process that appeals to the public in terms of it being sufficiently deliberative and not rushed, and moderate (AKA legitimate, cf. “constitutional reinterpretation”). It may be wise for the DPJ to get out ahead of the LDP and the public, which has, and may even more so, become more hawkish (but not necessarily “militaristic”) in 2013 regarding regional security. This is of course notwithstanding an unlikely turnaround in the Chinese approach to East Asia in general, and the policy of challenging Japan’s effective control over the Senkaku Islands in particular. I suspect here the key is to restrain, not to obstruct. While the Diet already has its own process for looking at the constitution and revision, it appears that it is treading water. Perhaps the DPJ should take the initiative prior to the election but with sufficient time for the LDP to commit or reject, and propose a multi-partisan commission of some sort that will also solicit the views of the public and other stakeholders. The Komeito (who really actually doesn’t want the LDP to do too well in July, but can’t really say so out loud) may be sufficiently concerned with its LDP coalition partner and could be open to backing such a proposal. If Ishihara can be sidelined even further in favour of Hashimoto et al, then the JRP may also be amenable to such a proposal as it would likely give them more visibility and not let the LDP have its way in terms of making the running around security issues within that proportion of the public interested in a stronger security policy.

One of the advantages of Noda’s “early” call for the election is that 7 months is sufficient time to allow the public to get to know the Abe administration, 2.0. If the public is still not one hundred percent sure of what Abe might do on some very important and consequential issues come July, they may be very reluctant to turn over both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors to the administration for potentially up to three years without a clear policy program. It is only fair to the public for the opposition to at some point start asking the right questions and to be relentless in doing so, but by also being constructive at the same time.

* One remembers that when Maehara Seiji, early on in the TPP talks during the DPJ era, came out and suggested that ultimately if the TPP was going to work against Japan’s national interests that Japan could, and should, withdraw from negotiations. Maehara was of course, 100 percent correct, even if saying so was very unwise. And indeed it was unwise – the DPJ and Maehara was assailed for being “naive” and “inappropriate” and all other manner of things. Perhaps fairly so. Nevertheless, fast forward two to three years and a top level LDP official said pretty much the same thing – to thunderous silence and a deafening lack of concern within the media.

And Just How Bad Was it for the DPJ?

Bad. Actually, very, very bad. While the DPJ managed to just pip the Japan Restoration Party for second place with 57 seats (down from 308), the “third pole” parties still did overall quite well with the JRP getting 54 and Your Party getting 18, for a total of 72.

Thus we have the governing parties of the LDP (294) and Komeito (31) with 325 seats, the “centrist” DPJ with 57 seats, the “third pole” with 72 seats, and the “left,” collectively made up of the Japan Future Party (9), the Social Democratic Party (2), the Communist Party (8), and New Party Daichi (1) with 20 seats. Perhaps most telling is the number of current  (7) and former members of DPJ cabinets (10) that lost not only their SMD seats but did not even make it back into the Diet on the PR list (17 in total!). That said, whether it be Okada, Hosono, Edano or Maehara who takes over, many of these people will not be missed by them as they rebuild the party, if that is even possible.

 Current ministers in the Noda cabinet:

Mitsui Wakio, Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare

Kodaira Tadamasa, Consumer Affairs

Jojima Koriki, Finance

Nakatsuka Ikko, Financial Services

Tanaka Makiko, Education

Fujimura Osamu, Chief Cabinet Secretary

Tarutoko Shinji, Internal Affairs

It cannot be often that both the sitting finance minister and chief cabinet secretary, considered to be two of the top four jobs in the cabinet, lose their jobs outright.

Previous Ministers:

Hachiro Yoshio, METI (Mr “I’ll give you radiation”)

Kano Michihiko, Agriculture (anti-TPP ringleader and thorn in both Kan and Noda’s side)

Hosokawa Ritsuo, Health, Labour and Welfare

Tanaka Keishuu, Justice (Quit after connections to the Yakuza were revealed)

Komiyama Yoko, HLW

Kawabata Tatsuo, Internal Affairs

Hirano Hirofumi, Chief Cabinet Secretary (Hatoyama cabinet – widely considered to be incompetent)

Hiraoka Hideo, Justice (appointed someone with a criminal record to be his secretary)

Sengoku Yoshito, Chief Cabinet Secretary (Accused of sexual harassment, responsible for the Senkaku debacle by pressuring prosecutors to release the captain, etc)

Matsumoto Ryu, Environment (Abused two Tohoku governors after the tsunami, threatened a journalist, then blamed it on his Kyushu background and his blood type)

Not too many of the people from the second list will be missed.

Notable DPJ members who were “revived” on the PR list after losing their SMD seats include former PM Naoto Kan and Noda’s DPJ leadership run-off rival Kaieda Banri.

The LDP and Issue Avoidance

Michael Cucek, while agreeing with the general thrust of my previous post on the changing electoral composition in Japan, questions whether my suggestion is likely to implemented in reality. To be sure, the likelihood of anyone seeing sense as I described it is indeed small. Nevertheless, I think pointing out that when the Diet reconvenes early next year, taking an axe to the PR component of the current electoral system will be the exact wrong strategy for all parties except for the LDP, has some merit. One can only hope that the DPJ in particular realizes this, as ultimately Abe’s promise to undertake a fuller reform of the House of Representatives was made to the DPJ and it is up to them to make the running on this issue.

If the opposition parties collectively were more focused, then they could well force more out of the LDP than MTC lets on, however. If (that word again) Abe is smart he will spend the first regular Diet session of next year focusing on economic issues and avoiding any moves on the more controversial issues such as changing the constitution or the interpretation of the right to collective self-defense. Abe needs to build political capital before he can spend it. The issue of timing regarding pushing forward on constitutional reform is ultimately in Abe’s hands. The goal should be to make it to the House of Councillors elections with as little drama as possible and again use the House of Councillors electoral math to put the LDP in a strong position to take back the house as the uninspiring default option.

Two issues that will likely need to be progressed one way or another in the next Diet session are the electoral reform bill as promised to the DPJ, and a final decision on the TPP. A decision on the TPP will not wait much longer. First, the general perception in Washington according to one high-level proponent of the TPP in a conservative DC thinktank I spoke to last week is that the TPP will live or die in 2013 one way or another, in contrast to the RCEP, which will be slower but more “sustainable” in terms of the process. This seems like a reasonable insight. Another reason why Abe will be faced with a decision is that expectations are high in Washington itself that Abe will actually bring the Japanese electorate around and, in the words of the aforementioned thinktanker (not Michael Green), “betray the people” if need be in order to bolster the US-Japan alliance (that said, the public has been for some time somewhat in favour of joining the TPP).  There is a small chance Abe may be able to put off a decision until immediately after the House of Councillors election, where the vote disparity is almost 5:1 in favour of rural districts, but the window will be very small. This kind of thinking is probably optimistic on the part of DC crowd, but on the other hand I would not rule it out.

How Abe will deal with his promise to the DPJ will depend on how aware of its own viability the DPJ is in terms of its long-term prospects for political influence. The only hard and fast rule of the promise to Noda is that there needs to be a reduction in the number of Diet members in the Lower House. The issue of how they are elected was not directly touched upon although the DPJ could argue that as they included it in the bill that was rejected when Noda extracted the promise from Abe, then Abe implicitly promised to consider this issue as well. If the LDP takes not much more than 30 percent of the total PR vote, and wins as resoundingly as many are expecting in terms of actual seats gained – all on the back of an unconstitutional election which treats large swathes of the electorate as less than half a citizen – then the opposition parties will be more than justified making a lot of noise about how the HoR not only needs to be reduced, but also needs to be dramatically reformed. MTC may be right in pointing out that the LDP will be extremely hostile to any changes to the electoral system, but on the other hand, will it be the price for political peace in the lead up into the House of Councillors election? The opposition parties if they were smart, should make it so. Where I agree with MTC is that the DPJ probably has little awareness about what its actual interests are. Much like on September 16, 2009.

This could ultimately be all up to Abe. Will he learn the correct lesson from his first time in power, and for that matter from Hatoyama and from Kan’s strategic blunders in terms of issue selection, and choose the right issues to address first?

Is it Time to Start Thinking about 2013?

As was predicted here around the time of the dissolution of the Diet the mechanics of the current Japanese political system makes it likely that the LDP-Komeito coalition, if not the LDP on its own, will get a majority on December 16th. At the official start of the election season on December 4th most of the mainstream media outlets have started to predict this very outcome This is despite the LDP’s support rate under Abe being less than stellar, and there being almost no enthusiasm for the party. This seems to have been a (what should have been obvious) stimulus to the likes of the JRP who will now look to turn their undivided attention to attacking the LDP. JRP 2IC Osaka Governor Matsui has even come out groveling to Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi, saying (日) that he and Hashimoto were in hindsight “too cheeky” and insufficiently respectful of “Watanabe-Sempai’s (political) life experience.” With the LDP the default option, uninspiring to many as it is, nothing short of some grand gesture/announcement by the two “third pole” parties is going to change the the narrative and outcome of this particular election. It is possible that they may turn around what looks to be a fait accompli, just unlikely at this point in time. This is because it is unfortunately too late to offload Ishihara and the other retro-conservatives of the Taiyo no Tou, and make a play for Your Party amalgamation. With the LDP lurking at around 20-25 percent in the PR vote, it does not have to do much better in the SMDs, if at all, than it did in the last disastrous election for the LDP, to acquire a majority this time around, given the rest of the vote will be split in the SMDs between the JRP/YP, the DPJ, and the Japan Future Party (JFP). This will look like a comprehensive victory, but the deeper numbers, as we will all know, will suggest anything but a mandate.

Which raises some interesting questions about the Japanese political system going forward. There has been discussion about the current configuration, of the “conservative” LDP, the “whatever-you-personally-want-to-label-them” JRP, the centrist DPJ, and the “liberal” JFP, being representative of the true realignment of Japanese politics, as opposed to a seemingly “forced” two party British/Westminster system. I had this discussion with good friend Bryce Wakefield recently; and friend of Sigma1, Michael Penn at Shingetsu News Agency, has recently put forward the same hypothesis in last week’s subscription-only “Tokyo Diplomat.” [So credit goes to them].

Given the complexity of the Japanese political system and the difficulty in identifying what we Westerners tend to perceive as “left” and “right” in the Japanese ideological spectrum, then this seems a pretty solid hypothesis. We may have to give up on a two-party system – and that might be ok. As long as the parties themselves are somewhat internally coherent (not quite there yet of course) then having more than two (incoherent) parties may not be a bad thing.

If this is the case, then Japan clearly has the wrong political system. If as is predicted the LDP does go on to win quite convincingly on the back of 20 percent support in the Proportional Representation system (ie their “true” support level) then something is quite clearly wrong. First-Past-the-Post systems limit political representation for the benefit of simplifying the political system and promoting stable, but still democratic, governance. However, this is more for systems where two major political parties fiercely compete but are likely to fall a bit short of getting 50 percent of the vote from time to time on their own. However, not this short. 20 and even 30 percent “true” support translating into perhaps 60 percent of the number of seats seems absurd. It clearly undermines too much the “popular democracy” component of the democracy-governance trade-off of FPP systems (notwithstanding the PR component of the current Japanese system). Throw in the fact that rural votes are worth two times as much as urban votes (not to mention this being unconstitutional), then it becomes an absolute farce.

This is not to say that a return to the Multiple Member Districts (MMD) of old is desirable. That would be a step backwards. It does raise questions regarding Noda and Abe’s plan/promise to cut the number of seats during the 2013 regular Diet session, however. When you have four parties which all deserve some kind of voice, why cut the PR seats? Especially when they are the only part of the system that gives certain citizens an “equal value” vote. Cutting the seats to save on waste is noble enough, but doing so in a way that might enshrine permanent but unpopular LDP-Komeito rule in the medium-term will be undesirable, even for the DPJ. The DPJ is unlikely to ever again win the way it did in 2009. It may be able to gain in the 2013 House of Councillors election, but it will not be much. The truth is, the DPJ is not the “2nd party” that they think they are in a Westminster-style system. Neither will the JRP be. When we all come back next year and Abe is forced to consider his promise to undertake reform of the House of Representatives, reducing the PR seats will be exactly the wrong thing to do, unless there is some kind of realignment into two blocs.

At the risk of sounding parochial, there is of course a solution, one that may only have a six month window open for consideration if the LDP is mildly successful at governing.

It produces good, stable cabinet-focused governance based on coalition governments, and pretty good representation across the spectrum while still incentivizing centrist policy-making. It is not that different from the current Japanese system in that it has both FPP elements and PR elements. And if a party is genuinely popular then it doesn’t prevent them from claiming a mandate for reform.

Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP).* It’s perfect for a natural four (or three) party system with a Westminster heritage. And, citizens are all enfranchised as both their party and their electorate vote are valued the same as anywhere else in the nation. Imagine that.

* With all of the necessary tweaks needed to make it work in Japan.

LDP Support Takes a (Mini) Dive

The Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers’ opinion polls released this morning would seem to portend bad news for Abe Shinzo and the LDP. According to the Yomiuri poll (日) in the last week LDP’s PR vote support has dived from 25 percent to 19 percent which is more than just a sample error. The DPJ and Your Party have been the beneficiary of this, increasing slightly from 10 percent to 13 percent (DPJ) and from 2 percent to 5 percent (YP) respectively. The new “Mirai no Tou” or “Future Party” makes a minor dent at 5 percent which will only bring back about 10-15 of their current 60 odd MPs at best. The JRP vote is holding constant but does indeed seem to have peaked at 13 percent.

The Asahi poll (日) shows some similarities. LDP support is down from 23 to 20 percent, and the DPJ is up from 13 percent to 15 percent. Again the JRP is holding constant at around 9 percent in this poll (10 percent previously). The poll also reveals a lack of expectation for the Mirai no Tou and Ozawa’s involvement in particular.

To be sure this is an interesting development. Abe’s perceived flip-flopping on the BOJ issue and the attack from all sides, including the LDP’s New Komeito partner, on issues relating to defense such as the collective self-defense and changes to Article 9 regarding the SDF name and its legal constitutional basis, are likely to been a factor in this decline.*

It is too early to predict a change in the outcome of the election, however. The Yomiuri poll shows that while the PR vote for the LDP is less than impressive, the LDP is likely still to do better in the SMDs. 22 percent of people will vote for the LDP in their SMD (down from 27 percent to be sure), 13 percent for the DPJ (up from 9 percent), and 12 percent for the JRP (down from 14 percent). Of course that is less than 50 percent of the vote, but it (superficially) shows how the split in the non-LDP vote might just put the LDP ahead in many of the 300 First-Past-the-Post SMDs, which are already tilted in the LDPs favour due to the vote-value disparity amplifying the voice of rural areas. Furthermore, unless the DPJ (3 years of troubled rule)** and the JRP (bickering with Your Party, and now seemingly internally between the Ishihara and Hashimoto factions over the nuclear issue)*** can relieve themselves of the political media burdens that they are currently carrying, then much of the remainder of that 40 to 50 percent undecided vote will probably default to the LDP.**** In fact, this should be the LDP’s general strategy – the default party. In this sense Abe, with his various visions, might well turn out to be the wrong guy for this kind of strategy.

* The Asahi poll also reveals some opposition to Abe’s proposal to change the SDF’s name to that of “National Defense Military” (国防軍). 51 percent are against and only 26 percent are in favour. The rightward shift is palpable! Technically this name change would be rendered as “National Defense Force” in English but the name change is more significant in Japanese due to the presence of the 軍 character, hence my translation. The Asahi poll indicates that candidate/party positions on Article 9 are important in the final voting decision for 68 percent of respondents.

** Are the North Koreans going to influence this election by giving a helping hand to Noda by launching a missile right before the election? A solid performance by Noda might reinforce the narrative that, while not a popular or attractive candidate, he is a steady hand on foreign policy, unlike his “weak” DPJ predecessors or his potential “Hawkish” LDP replacement in Abe. Of course, on the other hand, any scent of mismanagement in the response will have quite the opposite effect.

*** Why is the JRP even talking about the nuclear power issue (or for that matter weapons)? It is not going to win them any votes either which way because those who are concerned with nuclear power issues were not voting for them anyway. The discussion only highlights internal disagreement on the issue, something that exists along the political spectrum. As long as they don’t take an obviously pro-nuclear power, or immediate, “Nuclear Zero” position to close down the reactors then discussion over this is a distraction from what should be a relentless and single-minded emphasis on administrative reform and decentralization.

****Still no good polls from swing SMD blocs or a general regional bloc-by-bloc breakdown of the PR vote thus making more specific conclusions inappropriate. The Kyodo poll from the same time period shows that there has been virtually no change in the last week. 18 percent for the LDP, 10 percent for JRP, and 9 percent for the DPJ. They show about 3.5 percent for the Mirai no Tou.

Will Your Party-Japan Restoration Party Discord Swing the Election to the LDP?

The overlapping of Single Member Districts between Your Party and the JRP continues. As of late yesterday the two parties have fielded candidates in 18 of the same SMDs (日), including, somewhat inexplicably, overlap in 5 Kanagawa districts and 7 Tokyo districts. These districts would be ones ripe for the picking of a united third party, as Tokyo and Kanagawa have swung decisively towards the party with a reform mantra in previous years (such as Koizumi in 2005, and DPJ in 2009). The LDP will be most happy as apart the two parties will gain a lower share of the vote than they would united, liking tipping these districts to the LDP unless the public perceives that one of them (likely Your Party’s candidate in this case) is not worth voting for. It would seem the two sides are in a potentially disastrous game of chicken, although not yet close to being beyond salvage.

Interestingly, the perception in Your Party is that the JRP is speaking of collaboration but is really out to overwhelm Your Party nationally and regionally, thus making a “third pole” vote for the JRP a fait accompli by election day.  There is likely truth in this.

However this might be a little self-indulgent on Your Party’s part. The explicit reason why a deal has not been done is because the JRP rejected the “Your Party in the East, JRP in the West” division of labour proposed by YP. The problem is that the YP was always going to be the junior partner and an inability to comprehend that suggests that Watanabe Yoshimi’s ego may well be the biggest, and certainly the most fragile, of the three main third pole protagonists (as noted on this blog many times). The JRP ultimately has wider appeal, due to personnel, but also because, while reform-orientated, the JRP agenda is more pragmatic with distinctly non neo-liberal elements mixed in with the more obviously neo-liberal reform proposals. This fits with the Japanese public who want to see smaller government in certain places (construction, bureaucracy), but are not particularly doctrinaire about the small v large government issue. Furthermore, as Osaka Governor and JRP executive Matsui was right to note (and has again been emphasised on this blog on a few occassions), Watanabe’s political judgement deserves to be questioned given the complete and utter lack of accomplishments over the last three years by Your Party. This is despite being in the position to actually influence proceedings through a crucial number of Diet members in the House of Councillors (at least before the DPJ started shedding numbers). A pragmatic, intelligent leader would have reached across the aisle and perhaps made even one or two deals- for example an acceptable reform by the DPJ in exchange for a YP core reform. That this did not happen and Watanabe essentially whinged for three years, while taking occassionally witty potshots at the DPJ (while being unable to take them in return!), suggests that perhaps indeed Hashimoto and Matsui have the better political judgement in terms of staying aloof from YP. After all, Your Party’s support seems to have dipped over time rather than increased despite the ample number of non-committed/independent voters in Japan that may have been attracted to an independent party (between 50-65 percent depending on the poll). Ultimately, Your Party was unable to distinguish itself from the LDP in any meaningful way despite pretensions to do so (and probably also unable to get over the PR fail that is the Your Party moniker).

In fact, arguably Your Party’s existence, perhaps ironically, is owed to Noda. Only a matter of a month or so ago Your Party had suffered defections and there was internal disharmony around Watanabe’s leadership. It seemed that in the long-term Your Party would continue to bleed all their remaining support to whatever movement Hashimoto was trying to build over time. Without Noda calling a snap election then Hashimoto et al may well have had more time to build a nation-wide political machine without relying on the support of Your Party, or for that matter, Ishihara. Noda’s call essentially revived Your Party and forced Hashimoto to reconsider an alliance with the Watanabe et al.*

Nevertheless, while the JRP may be justified in thinking it has the upper hand, they still need to be smart. As I argued in the previous post, it is not so much about how many seats the JRP can get vis-a-vis the DPJ, and for that matter, Your Party, but what impact third pole parties will have on the likelihood of a LDP-Komeito coalition gaining the majority. With 300 SMD seats up for grabs, and the DPJ unlikely to get much more than 100 of them (at best), then there is still plenty of scope for the LDP, as a default, to gain the 150 or so SMD seats required to gain a majority, even if Abe Shinzo fails to inspire.

Perhaps more important than anything, is the media perception. The media is following closely the Watanabe-Hashimoto collaboration story, and while it has emphasized their cooperation (such as campaigning together and drawing a 1000 person crowd), it will also seize ruthlessly on any appearance of discord. Arguably it already is. Even if there is less than meets the eye in terms of conflict between YP and JRP, the Japanese media, as it is wont to do, will focus on the personal politics,  emphasize the petty aspects, and the conflict. That could will well give the public second thoughts about a vote for a third pole party.

*Noda would have seen that the third parties were vulnerable and calculated that now was the time to strike with dissension in the ranks. Where Noda miscalculated was that Ishihara and Hahsimoto would be pragmatic enough to join forces with each other and compromise on issues such as nuclear power and the TPP.

Key Factor for Determining the Election Outcome

Assumption: The Liberal Democratic Party is likely to get 60 seats in the various local Proportional Representation blocs – It is hard to see them doing worse than they did in 2009, their worst defeat ever, even if they fail to get back a lot of the pre-2009 vote. The Japan Restoration Party (JRP) will instead likely eat away at those who would have swung back from the DPJ to the LDP in this election if the JRP was not contesting the local PR blocs. If there is evidence of the JRP eating into core LDP support then this prediction will change, but I have yet to see this evidence.

However, that Ishihara is running in the Tokyo PR bloc, and Higashikokubaru (probably) in the Kyushu bloc, is smart and enhances the ability of the JRP to do this by freeing these two prominent individuals to campaign across these broad districts without engaging in a Single Member District (SMD) race. The main areas to prioritize for the JRP in terms of going for the PR vote would be Hokkaido, Tokyo, Southern Kanto, Kinki (of course) and Kyushu. Right now the opinion polls are all over the place regarding how much support the post-merger JRP actually has, so I will refrain from a prediction on the JRP’s likely PR seat haul for now.

New Komeito is however likely to improve on its 21 seats from 2009 as it regains some PR vote back from the DPJ from those who would  not vote for the conservative LDP or populist JRP. It is also likely, in deals with these two parties, to pick back up a few SMD seats from the DPJ in Kinki and Tokyo. With 30 or so Komeito seats and the LDP’s likely 60 PR seats, the key to the LDP-Komeito getting a majority (241) would be the LDP getting 150 of the 300 SMD seats. If this was a straight LDP-DPJ election then this would be very likely, and in fact the LDP gaining 170-180 seats or more, and perhaps even getting a simple majority on its own without the Komeito, would be plausible.

Thus the JRP’s entry into the election, and particularly the alignment with other “third pole” parties, is critical for changing this dynamic. First, Ishihara, Hashimoto and Noda are all arguably better campaigners than the sometimes prevaricating (and often too talkative, as noted by Jun Okumura) Abe. Abe has already seemingly backtracked on his BOJ statements as well as his TPP statements. This may have an overall effect in terms of bringing the LDP brand down by complicating the narratives around who is responsible for whatever it is someone needs to be responsible for in modern Japan. If Abe could focus just on Noda and the DPJ then these prevarications might no be so much of an issue given the DPJ’s own track record, but with the media focusing on the enigmatic third pole candidates the construction of a coherent and winning narrative is going to be more difficult. Also, with this prominent JRP presence, and potential threat,  Abe and the LDP will be forced to attack, rather than ignore this grouping and focus on the DPJ, as they would have otherwise done.

However more important than this is the strategy towards the SMDs the JRP in particular is going to adopt. An important part of making strategy for the JRP in this case is balancing short and long-term objectives. It would seem obvious that the objective for the JRP is to gain as many seats as possible. However, arguably preventing the LDP (and Komeito) from regaining a majority should be given even greater priority, although the two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

What I mean by this is that, in terms of how to focus its resources, the JRP should concentrate on the SMDs where its presence can turn the race into a genuine three way contest. In other words, those electorates where the LDP won in 2005, lost in 2009 to the DPJ, and would be likely to swing back to the LDP in 2012 without a third option. There is likely to be around 120 or so of these type of seats. They will not win all of these or even most, and they may even throw a few to the DPJ, but if they manage to deprive the LDP of the magic 150 SMD seats, then that would be the price to pay for relevance and influence in 2013. In this sense, getting 30 seats is as good as 100 if the LDP will be forced to rely on another party. If they compete in what would otherwise be safe DPJ districts in a two-horse race, and only succeed in turning over the SMD to the LDP, they will be further from what should be their objective. Of course, in their campaign rhetoric the DPJ will probably be the easy target, but ultimately it is the LDP that is the true “enemy” for the JRP and others in terms of electoral strategy.

The JRP also needs to vigorously court LDP votes in the SMDs and not just focus on picking up some of the “easy” votes leaving the DPJ. To do this however the JRP will need to work with Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party by not overlapping in SMD districts, even if they compete for regional PR votes. Voters will need to be convinced that a vote for a third party will not be a wasted vote.

There are some signs that the JRP and YP are coordinating in this fashion. On the 19th November Your Party and the JRP endorsed their first mutual candidate (日), Your Party’s Ishii Ryouma, a candidate interestingly enough running in Osaka #12 inside the JRP’s home base. Originally Ishii was going to run in Osaka #2 but was moved out of consideration for the JRP candidate. The JRP also went back on their initial plan to run a candidate in every PR bloc’s symbolically important number one district, out of consideration for YP who announced (日) they would run candidates in 10 out of the 11 #1 SMDs. However the next day it became clear that the two were also overlapping. When YP announced their initial tranche of candidates they named a candidate to run in Hokkaido #2 where the JRP is also running a candidate. Your Party did however postpone a decision on Tokyo #23 where the JRP is also running a candidate, but followed it up a few days later by announcing a new face to run in Tokyo #23. Tokyo #4 also seems to overlap. In the YP and JRP’s respective announcements of their third trance of candidates, the Kanagawa area, an area where the LDP is likely to do well compared to 2009, is notable in that both sides have committed candidates to the same five SMD districts. One has to question the wisdom of this.

Anyhow, I will be keeping an eye on this particular facet (coordination between the YP and the JRP) as events unfold over the next few weeks, and hopefully some consistent opinion polls with a regional breakdown will appear allowing more informed decisions. After the election season officially starts on December 4, I will also highlight some key SMD races and whether the YP/JRP is likely to to deprive the LDP of 150 SMD seats.