The Yomiuri believes (jp) that at a meeting tonight with members of his group Maehara Seiji will officially announce that he will run for the position of the President of the Democratic Party of Japan. Despite at one point tending towards not running, Maehara has, in the official narrative, been unable to fend off calls for him to run, given he is seen to be a candidate that might be able to retain popularity with the public should he be elected to Prime Minister. Thus, he is about to throw his hat into the ring “for the nation.”
The first implication of this is that it effectively kills off the chances for the
LDP’s and Finance Ministry’s initial frontrunning candidate, Noda Yoshihiko. As suggested in earlier entries Noda was always going to be a hard sell. With Noda subsequently coming out in favour of a tax increase, and also standing by a statement he made six years earlier about Japan’s convicted war criminals not being ‘real’ war criminals, he pretty much ensured his candidature was not going to get off the ground, despite the best efforts of the media and various other interests to legitimate it. At the very least the DPJ needs someone to come out of the party election with a modicum of public popularity or else their ability to convince any of the opposition parties to cooperate, even for a short period of time, will be greatly diminished right from the start. Realising this, in the last week or so the “mainstream” faction group (主流派) in the DPJ has shifted quite discernibly from supporting Noda to supporting Maehara, mainly facilitated through former Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshihito’s manoeuvring. Maehara was sensible to keep a low profile earlier on in the campaign and come out sceptical about immediate tax increases, and now has considerable flexibility in articulating a policy platform.
However it cannot be taken for granted that Maehara will be victorious. This election will not poll DPJ party members, party officials, or local DPJ public office holders, where Maehara likely holds the strongest support. Maehara will likely gain the support of the “mainstream” group of the DPJ but this group is not a majority of the party. His chances are good but not guaranteed. With so many candidates in the running it is very likely that this election may proceed to a run-off and while Maehara is a good bet to make it to the run-off stage, from that point on much will depend on his ability to make good with other groups within the the party, including the Ozawa group. Maehara has come out in the last few days against suggestions made by Kaieda Banri and Mabuchi Sumio that a more relaxed line towards Ozawa’s suspension be taken, but it will be interesting to see how this position evolves or stands up in the coming days if Maehara is unable to acquire enough support from the non-Ozawa groups.
If he is unable to consolidate his support base he could be vulnerable to the party rallying around a figure such as Mabuchi, Kaieda (to a lesser degree – I suspect his candidature is more an Ozawa bargaining chip) or, even someone like Kano Michihiko, as curiously suggested by party elder Watanabe Kozo here (en).1
Personally I think a candidate like Kano would likely engender the opposite reaction. It may be true as Watanabe argues that he is relatively inoffensive in personal political terms, but his anti-free trade agenda, and Kano being the Ministry of Agriculture’s candidate extraordinaire, will likely be an issue for those concerned about the party’s longevity and public image. The Japanese public is not exactly enthusiastic about the free trade agenda and has – in some cases quite reasonable – concerns about the TPP in particular. But, as many opinion polls have suggested (jp), neither are the Japanese public keen to stick their heads in the sand and let nostalgia for some long gone past prop up the moribund agricultural industry to the detriment of the other industries that make up the overwhelming majority of the Japanese economy. It would be hard for a Kano-led DPJ to shake off the image that the DPJ is a “left” party as opposed to a “centre+left” party as Richard Samuels rightfully labels them here (en). It would certainly undermine the reformist credentials of the party – even more than their actions in government have up until now. But of course this logic may not necessarily make its way into the thinking of the power brokers within the DPJ, so all I can say is that stranger things have happened.
1 H/T to Ampontan