Tuesday, November 14, 2006

DPJ Must Pick Right Issues in Confronting Abe, LDP

I am putting this up here for that one member of the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism who did not hear the Voice this morning commanding jury members to go out and buy a copy of the Nov. 14 Daily Yomiuri, then immediately open to page 13.

And to all jury members, remember, vote early, vote often.

DPJ Must Pick Right Issues in Confronting Abe, LDP

The Liberal Democratic Party's by-election victories on Oct. 22 have given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an electoral seal of approval and left the opposition Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa wondering how to resuscitate his badly damaged image and party.

Although the two by-elections were local races, they were really campaigns between Ozawa and his DPJ and Abe and his LDP. They were an opportunity for the DPJ to take full advantage of an as-yet undefined prime minister, an LDP without a clear post-Koizumi vision and a public uneasy with the dark side of the reform years of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Yet, it was Abe and the LDP that quickly and completely seized control of the messages that voters respond to.

The DPJ did not force Abe to play on his weak side, to outline his plans to deal with the domestic agenda; balance national finances, restore confidence in the public health care and welfare system, improve public education and address the kakusa (income disparity) issue. Instead, the DPJ allowed Abe to promote himself with impunity and gave him the opportunity to decide what issues were important and what issues were not.

It is true that Abe benefited from a near perfect set of events that may have been difficult to campaign against. His electrifying trip to Beijing and Seoul obscured a domestic agenda that was short in detail. Moreover, Kim Jong Il's nuclear test allowed Abe to cast his already dramatic visit in a even more positive light and enhance his image as a tough-talking leader, willing and able to ensure the security of his nation. He owned the media and he owned the issues. He had defused the Yasukuni Shrine issue, reached a measure of peace with Chinese and South Korean leaders, and had managed to make common cause against the North Korean nuclear program.

Ozawa was left with one last chance to redefine Abe in the public eye through his long-delayed first public face-off. That opportunity came in the Diet on Oct. 18, four days before the by-elections and already three weeks after Abe became prime minister.

And yet, Ozawa decided to attack him on two fronts: constitutional reform and the U.N. sanctions against North Korea--the two linchpins of the national security issue that Abe controlled and were now broadly supported by the public. Why couldn't Ozawa take Abe to task on growing economic kakusa, i.e. regional and personal disparities? That's one subject where he could have depicted Abe as the inheritor of a tainted legacy.

Then there's education. That's another issue where the blame for growing kakusa could be laid at the feet of a veteran cabinet member/chief aide and LDP policy head under the former prime minister. Ozawa chose to launch his critique with the wrong topics, asked the wrong questions and showed no sense of overall strategy. In politics, it is paramount to pick your messages and do everything possible to make them stick. All media, speeches, printed material and press activity must focus on promoting the messages that resonate with voters--not policy statements--but emotional ideas that force people to pay attention and excite passions. It is also about drawing attention to the opposition and its weaknesses. Abe has many weaknesses but the DPJ failed to act.

This is a pivotal moment for the DPJ. The party must pick up the pieces and devise a plan to give itself a fighting chance in the 2007 House of Councillors election.

The first step is to create an intelligent strategy that targets the right issues at the right time to the right audience. They must start now.

Turner is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow in Japan and chief executive officer of DW Turner, Inc., a U.S.-based public affairs group. Okumura is a former Japanese government official and counselor with the Eurasia Group.


MTC said...

The individual kakusa issue is an electoral loser for a major party because one would have to explain the math.

The Socialists are at liberty to beat the kakusa drum because no one bothers to ask them to prove their points.

The Democratic Party's has a history of rubbishing of regional kakusa as an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of structural change in the Japanese polity. For the party to reverse course and adopt the LDP's practices of funneling national savings to the rural areas would be ideological suicide.

Jun Okumura said...

I am aware that there is a debate, backed on both sides by their favorite numbers, over how much of the changes in income distribution and wage patterns are due to demographic shifts, and how much, if any, of them can be attributed to the effects of the Koizumi reform. But corporations did downsize, corporations did change their human resource strategies in a shift toward cheap temps. And metropolitan mega-centers continued to suck up the young of the rest of Japan.

How much of this is attributable to businesses adapting to competitive pressures in an increasingly globalized economy as well as to the public sector yielding to fiscal realities, and how much to discretionary policy choices made by Koizumi in lieu of alternatives that would have yielded similar aggregate economic results but with less kakusa? Your guess is as good as, indeed likely better than, mine, given the kinds of blogs we each frequent.

But that's an economic argument. What is important from the political point of view is that there is a certain reality that is seen as imposing an unfair hardship on large segments of the population. If Prime Minister Abe is allowed to stake his legitimacy on an economic recovery that may have been mostly fueled by the Chinese and US economies, then he should not complain if he is saddled with the blame for the grievances that have accumulated. (I have a supportive, though somewhat different, argument about public works, which I hope to work out at more length.)

Some people will consider this a cynical outlook on politics. It is decidely not. But that's a subject for a separate post.