Which Party Will Sit Out 2013?

It is generally accepted that we are moving closer to an election, but that is all we know. In fact, we may not even know that. Noda has been at his evasive best saying one thing (yes, yes, election soon), but intimating another – at the recent APEC he said to Putin that he was keen to visit to discuss issues of “historic” importance. My rational side says nothing much will come of it, but sounds like as good a reason as any to put off an election. Who knows – maybe Noda has a “Nixon goes to China” card up his sleeve.

Nevertheless the punditry has begun, mainly because we now know that Hashimoto Toru’s party (Japan Restoration Association (Party) or JRA) will be competing in the next lower house election, and has secured seven current MPs, thereby allowing the JRA to run candidates in the regional PR blocks as well as the Single Member Districts. We also have a fair idea of what his policies will be (another post).

So it is about time I put in my almost certainly overvalued two cents.

Jun Okumura says that incentive is for Hashimoto’s JRA to stay out of any post-election coalition – to let the DPJ-LDP-Komeito marriage of ill-repute come together with extremely low expectations, and to fail to even meet those. All the while the JRA will be ready to pounce,  having acquired for itself some basic party funding, in the 2013 House of Councillors election and the likely snap election that would probably take place soon after. A recent Asahi Shimbun poll (日) supports such a view – even before discussions about a grand coalition 43% are against the idea of three-way cooperation versus 38% for a grand coalition. Such numbers will only drop once “deals” are done and the sausage factory is opened to the public. The same poll also asked people who were well disposed to the JRA having influence after the election which party the JRA should cooperate with after this election. 54% of those people said there was no necessity for the JRA to collaborate with any of the existing parties, corroborating Okumura’s view.

Michael Cucek suggests on the other hand that the incentive is actually for the DPJ to stay out of any post-election coalition, utilizing an ‘excuse’ of having essentially “lost” the faith of the people, to take advantage of a likely LDP-Komeito-JRA train wreck. If there is a formal or semi-formal arrangement – perhaps the LDP-Komeito forming a minority government, with the JRA providing confidence – Cucek predicts that such an arrangement falls apart due to countless skeletons coming out of the JRA amateurs’ (in the non-critical sense of the word) closets and various other iniquities and incompetencies. Even if the arrangement is very loose, it is hard to see collaboration surviving beyond the first budget – the LDP has promised to essentially bring back the “construction state” while the JRA’s continued existence will depend on it not being seen to support such an outcome. The DPJ will, with new leadership and after a period of reflection, be able to make up some ground in the snap election that would come from this,  and will ultimately be in a better position to finally implement, along with the JRA, some of the administrative reforms it originally wanted to.

Where do I stand on this?

I say it depends on how who is left standing in the DPJ after the next election. My issue with Cucek’s scenario is a simple one – I can see his logic, but is the collective leadership of the DPJ that smart…or more so, that brave?

Cucek is correct when he states that Ozawa, and the DPJ in general, had brought in good talent to man, and importantly, woman its middle and junior ranks. The greatest tragedy would be that such talents would go to waste while the ancien regime of the Cold War left and the now compromised senior leadership squeak on by. The party has over time brought in many centrists with real world experience outside of politics, and with a genuine interest in policy. If these talents are wiped out completely then the DPJ will have nothing to rehabilitate and may as well join in on the grand coalition. If the party can affect true “generational change,” perhaps under a humble but young leader like Hosono (who tactically and symbolically did the right thing by not running for the DPJ leadership), then Cucek’s strategy may be plausible. So can a decent size rump of the “next generation” survive 2012?

Depending on who the LDP selects as its leader, the DPJ will probably as the polls show finish second or third in the PR – they will be lucky to get much more than 20%. This will likely rehabilitate the current leadership through PR lists but not much more. So it will come down to   the 300 (or 295) SMDs whether the DPJ can find any salvation. The DPJ “kanban” is certainly not of any help. However much of Ozawa’s recruited talent have been squirreling away and paying attention to their constituencies and their stakeholders over the last 3 years. Those in urban areas should do better than the DPJ’s PR vote. It is likely Rengo, as well as some of the other stakeholder organizations that crossed over to the DPJ in 2009, will still get out significant votes for the DPJ. At least, the LDP has not really given them any reason to go rushing back. Should the JRA eat into the swing against the DPJ, thus depriving the LDP of the former DPJ votes they would have been expecting, then it is possible that the DPJ might do ok in some urban SMDs in a three or four way race. Nevertheless, you would expect some tactical deals to be struck between the JRA, Komeito, the LDP in particular. Already the JRA and Komeito have struck a deal in the Kansai region to lend each other support, but what deals are going to be struck in the rest of the country? Can the DPJ get in on any of these deals?

In terms of the calculus, Hashimoto is losing a little of his shine. Recent opinion polls have asked the question of whether people would want to see Hashimoto having influence in the next government. Previously the numbers had been closer to 2 to 1. Now they are evening up – I recall one recent poll having it at 50% in favour of post-election Hashimoto influence vs 43 % against . A recent NHK poll (日) has 54% as having expectations for Hashimoto’s party, while 42% not having these expectations. In the aforementioned Asahi poll, with the more exact question of “would you like to see Hashimoto’s party take enough seats in the election to have influence,” the number is 50% for the proposition versus 36% against, meaning that the JRA’s ability to take out a large number of SMDs on its own may be compromised if these numbers head further south. Indeed if the above Asahi poll is anything to go by, where only 5 percent said at this point they would vote for the “Osaka Ishin no Kai” then it seems the public’s support of the Hashimoto zeitgeist is not automatic – they may like many of his policies but that is not going to automatically translate into votes. I am not sure I buy the 5% as being representative, but nevertheless the party will still have some work to do and who it puts out as candidates, and what they say will be important. Perhaps Noda’s desire, having now lured Hashimoto to reveal his strategy, is to lengthen the time until the election precisely to allow for as much time for mistakes and disclosures, as Cucek has predicted, to take place.

In any respect the DPJ, if it is concerned with its own long-term survival, should be doubling their efforts to put a wedge between the LDP and Komeito on any issue possible, particularly electoral reform. The DPJ will still likely lose big, and even some notable party names may be knocked off, but if the party is smart or lucky then in the urban centers a number of the younger, centrist Diet members can survive the next election.

However I have my doubts if the senior leadership of the DPJ is that focused, or that considerate of those that they are leading. We can see this is in party elder Sengoku Yoshito’s recent statement that the DPJ would likely, if it had to, settle for the simplest solution to the unconstitutionality of the vote disparity in the House of Representatives of only reducing the number of SMDs by five seats. The rank and file of the DPJ should be under no illusions – if Sengoku represents the party leadership’s feelings, then Sengoku essentially wants to hasten the transition to the grand coalition as soon as possible, but on the most favourable terms for traditional LDP interests, something unforgivable from both an emotional partisan and a rational actor’s point of view.

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