This story sure developed fast! (Details here). Maybe this post will reveal more about my cynical way of thinking rather than sophisticated analysis but bear with me. While I am sure Foreign Minister Maehara was not looking for a way to quit (although Maehara was very quick to pursue the option), how bad will this be for Maehara himself long-term?
First we have to note the political situation that he is leaving behind – while many have said that Maehara is likely to be the next in line in the DPJ, and in relative terms he is one of the more popular political figures right now, one wonders how meaningful such a position is in the current political situation. First, Kan is unlikely to quit without calling a general election – in the last few days he has made more allusions to such a course of action in order to keep his DPJ enemies in line – it would hurt Kan deeply and he would almost definitely not be PM, but it would hurt his detractors, on both sides of the house, more.
Furthermore, if Kan was to quit over an inability to proceed with the budget-related bills it is highly unlikely that the political situation would improve. In fact the opposition parties have said as much. Even if a deal was worked out along the lines of Kan quitting in return for the budget-related bills being passed, it would still be very likely that Maehara would be leading a government into an election sometime within the year which would likely make him one of the shortest lived prime ministers in recent history. In terms of his own personal appeal he would be burdened with the DPJ’s reputation as their lead man. Now, he has temporarily removed himself from an extremely poisonous political situation. Better to be one of the shortest tenured foreign ministers than prime ministers perhaps?
In fact Maehara in the last year or so has always had a knack for staying on the right side of political issues, and has generally been perceived to have done a competent job. Given that he only last week instructed his people within the DPJ to be prepared for an election, Maehara and his group now have plenty of flexibility which may come in handy in any post-election manoeuvring.1
Then there is the atmospherics of the resignation. The decisiveness of the decision looks positively noble in comparison with the other resignations (Sengoku et al) and other ongoing money “scandals” (Ozawa) plaguing the political world and the DPJ. Maehara, saying:
But regardless of the amount of the donations or the fact that I was unaware (of them), I must seriously accept the fact that a politician who was (appointed) foreign minister accepted donations from a foreigner
looks rather calm and reasonable. He, in a clear manner admitted (j) that his actions “hurt the national interest.” And given that he likely was unaware of the donation, that this does not appear to part of a systematic funds scandal, and the amount of money is pitiful anyhow, Maehara looks rather stoic, maybe even pitiably so. As Joe Jones points out, the nature of the foreign donation itself is about as non-threatening as they come.
The following quote does not do him any harm either:
But the prime minister ultimately understood after I explained that the budget for fiscal 2011 (was in the midst of deliberations) and that there shouldn’t be a diplomatic vacuum
Maehara seems confident enough in his long-term political prospects that he will have another chance, likely a much better one, at becoming PM. Maehara may also be privy to knowledge that, with a decision on the TPP coming up in June it is less than clear that Kan will be able to sign Japan on to negotiations given dissent in the DPJ – this will make all of those in the cabinet who supported the TPP look extremely impotent given this was and continues to be the Kan government’s main ongoing political theme.
The picture painted by the media of the ‘foreigner’ having “influence” is also not particularly harmful – the lady in question has talked to the media, corroborated Maehara’s explanation, and has expressed remorse for her actions. Accompanied by tears for a kid from a poor family who she treated like her own child and just wanted to help however she could, (j) her pain is clear. However, she also intimated her hope that Maehara would be strong enough to be back again, calling his decision to take decisive action in resigning “manly.”
The image of Maehara vis-a-vis the opposition in this case is one of a hard-working, sincere and stand-up politician yet again undermined by his “weak flank,“(j) while the opposition looks, on the back of continued intransigence, petty by comparison, especially since it looks as if they may push for his resignation from the Diet as well. The fact that the Chinese also seem (j) happy with his resignation and more keen than usual to learn of his replacement probably does not hurt the atmospherics.
How this in reality will play out in the media is unknown – I have offered one possibility above. I want to be clear that I am not saying that this was premeditated or that Maehara or the “foreigner” in question’s pain is somehow less than sincere. I am sure it is genuine. Rather, given the specifics of the incident in question, the general attitude of the opposition camp, and the political situation, the decision to quit in the way Maehara has is strategically robust.
1 Of course another explanation for this is that there are more revelations to come and that indeed the law-breaking has been systematic. One could never rule this out but I would have thought a detractor if aware of these would have piled it on a little bit more at first.
Edit: This article quotes a family member of the Korean lady who made the donation who raises an interesting point:
A member of her family said the woman ‘‘paid money in good faith as she didn’t know (foreign people) are not allowed to politically back (Japanese lawmakers) even though South Korean residents of Japan can become public servants.’‘