Reading this weekend’s Japanese media reporting on the next DPJ election would lead one to believe that the establishment had already chosen their candidate, and were already in the process of legitimating the (neither popular nor unpopular) Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s run for the DPJ President and thus Japanese Prime Minister. As mentioned in the previous post he even got a curious helping hand from the leader of the opposition. There was much talk about “Grand Coalitions,” “National Unity/Salvation Cabinets,” “New Political Structures,” and all various other coded strategies to avoid deliberating on legislation in the open forum that is parliament. The newspapers in their editorials waded in on what this next cabinet must do, although some (en) of them were probably as profound as the analysis one would expect from an above average 12 year old.
Now what happens next is by all means up for grabs but it certainly seems Noda’s election prospects have strengthened considerably. Perhaps the main reason for feeling Noda has the inside running is due to the likely non-candidature of Maehara Seiji. It appears that Maehara if he runs is likely to put it off until the compulsory DPJ presidential race in September 2012. Now if the next PM is an improvement of any kind over Aso, Hatoyama and Kan in terms of leadership then this could be a strategic blunder. However it is worth reflecting on why Maehara may think waiting for his chance may actually be a better choice.
Noda and Maehara first of all are as mentioned previously not too far away in terms of political lineage, support bases and policy proclivities. In terms of the intra-party blocs that support them, a run-off between these two candidates could well split the only significant non-Ozawa faction’s unity and thus influence within the party. This faction loosely conforms to the support base around the “seven magistrates” (en) group. Furthermore, when Maehara previously ran for the DPJ’s presidency in 2005 Noda stepped aside for Maehara, so some kaeshi may be in involved here. This could well be the most important factor.
But it also appears that Maehara perceives that the next PM’s life-span may, like his predecessors, be similarly short. In addition to the obvious precedent, Maehara may think this either because the same politics that brought down Kan will also complicate the job of the next PM, or that the next PM, if leading a unity government of some kind, or even a grand coalition, will likely be constrained by the longevity of any such arrangement. If such an arrangement does come about then it is likely that it will not only have to expedite reconstruction but also will likely have to make some unpopular decisions on social security reform, and fiscal reconstruction. Whether it is raising taxes, or cutting spending, (and likely it will be both) it is going to be unpopular and the joining of forces to do this by the senior leadership of both established parties could well make it all the more galling for the public. And if the arrangement breaks down before anything of consequence gets done then again the next PM will take the blame for that. Maehara’s one cited flaw (I’ve only ever been in the same room with the man once so I am going from public record here) is that he is not the type to toughen it out, and as such the above analysis is consistent with this stated aspect of his political personality.
However there are some other strategic reasons that Maehara may be waiting. It is worthwhile bearing in mind that the upcoming election this month will be one that only polls the DPJ members of parliament and not local DPJ chapters or DPJ party members. Given that such a quick turn around advantages candidates like Noda who appear to be backed by the DPJ’s senior leadership, the winner of this month’s election will likely lack a degree of legitimacy which will make them vulnerable to challenges in the full election in 2012 should they make any egregious mistakes/fail to deliver in the mean time. There will also not be any consequential campaigning on the basis of policy. Maehara is most popular with the public and as such would probably do best in the 2012 format should he be able to stay on the right side of the policy issues, which he has demonstrated a good eye for up until now. It might explain why Maehara has publicly expressed (jp) some discomfort with the idea of raising taxes for the reconstruction at this point in time, despite that likely being a strong part of Noda’s policy platform.
Furthermore the winner of the 2012 election will likely be the one that leads the DPJ into the national general election. If the sausage-making (successful or otherwise) of any “National Unity Cabinet” does discredit the participants and the senior leadership of the two established parties, an untainted and uninvolved candidate may be well placed to benefit from any political fall-out. They may even be well placed to work with those in the LDP who would also distance themselves from such an arrangement, and other parties likely to purposively avoid such entanglements, such as Masuzoe Yoichi’s and Watanabe Yoshimi’s parties.
Interestingly Maehara has come out tonight in support of a grand coalition of some kind. However he strongly suggested (jp) it be time limited, “for example, for a year” lest it become like the Imperial Rule Assistance Association that administered Japan with no opposition during the years 1940-1945.
If indeed this is all part of the rationalization for Maehara’s inaction right now, more than Machiavellian it would all be very Tokugawa-esque (Ieyasu).
That said Noda et al might, in the interest of party unity rather than personal self-interest, be using talk of a grand coalition as a strategy to keep New Komeito close knowing ultimately that the LDP would find it difficult to realistically join such an arrangement given divisions in the party on the issue of working with the DPJ. As I argued in a previous post, these are the kinds of political fault lines a successful DPJ leader is going to have to manipulate in order to be successful, while keeping his own house and party in order. The DPJ right now is so dysfunctional that party unity and the self-interest of almost all of its members right now are closely aligned.
Maehara is due to make a final decision later this week after discussing it more with those who are making a push for him to run this time around. Assuming that he does indeed not elect to run, or does not come forward as a consensus candidate later on in the election (which I wouldn’t rule out), it will be interesting to see where Maehara fits into the post-election political arrangements and how close to the political administration he gravitates.