Monday, January 08, 2007

Reply to Ross's Comments on My Assessment of Mr. Abe's Prospects Re Upper House General Election

Ross's arguments are, as usual, very powerful, very convincing. Thus, I'm doing this as a new post mainly to draw the attention of any Dear Bloggers who do not always read the comments. And speaking of comments, I'm going to restart eliminating indiscriminate, drive-by, blogspam. If you see any comments that have been discarded by yours truly, that's what's going on.

Happy New Year, Ross. How were your winter holidays? Were the mistletoe gods kind to you?

As usual, you are convincing. And I confess that I slipped that piece in about the coalition maintaining a majority so matter-of-factly and without any explanation precisely because I hoped that you would rebuke me publicly. But here's my argument:

Shinzo Abe made a spectacular debut with his trip to Beijing and Seoul, but since then has not been able to distinguish himself in the public eye. He has not followed them with further high-profile diplomatic coups, and his domestic achievements have not come to grips with issues in a way that addresses the real concerns of the public. And he seems to be missing in action when party discipline becomes an issue. That is, on a personal basis, an unfair perception; he has a strong sense of personal loyalty as well as a stubborn streak that manifested themselves most clearly when he brought back the Penitent 11 into the LDP fold. (That it was also about the Firm should not cloud the fact that he genuinely wanted to undo what his predecessor had done.)

For better or worse, there is no reason to think that this situation will change between now and, say, July. . He is what he is, and he is neither smart enough nor dumb enough not to do it his way. So, given the daunting numbers, what makes me think that the Abe administration can hold onto its Upper House majority and consequently the Kantei? Three letters: DPJ.

The DPJ is essentially the LDP writ small, the latter's right-wing fringe replaced by left-wing residuals. In fact, I have reason to believe a large number of DPJ politicians would have just as readily stood from the LDP if they had had the chance. Thus, the DPJ has eventually gone along with each major policy initiative from the LDP. If that is too harsh an assessment, let me put it this way: the DPJ has not been able to achieve separation, that is, create the public perception that there is any significant difference between the LDP proposals and whatever thoughts they themselves are eventually able to come up with.

As for party leader, Ichiro Ozawa has been more than Mr. Abe's match in failing to meet false expectations. And he is also what he is, so don't expect him to amend his ways either. (As is Naoto Kan, unfortunately for the DPJ in these circumstances.)

More importantly, the LDP is taking the Upper House general election seriously. Mr. Abe has been able to force one weak incumbent to pull out, and continues to work on a few others. The LDP is taking the selection of the candidates, confirmed and unconfirmed, seriously. The DPJ is also taking its time determining its candidates, but very much for a different reason. I believe they cannot find the horses. Part of it may be just rumor, but the problems they have had and continue to have fielding candidates in local election are telling. Most DPJ Diet members would fit in quite comfortably in the LDP ideological and policy spectrums, first-time candidates even more so. The reluctance to stand means that political aspirants do not see the DPJ as a viable career option in the immediate future. This also exposes the fact that the DPJ still does not have the battle-tested rank-and-file local militias that are the core of any sustained political campaign. Instead, it relies on the "floating voters", the kind of people who vote in inexperienced comedians to governors' mansions and sustains charismatic prime ministers, to swing their way. Nothing that they have done so far, are likely to do, will make this happen. The ex-Socialist Party does not look to be in better shape; the Communist Party is what it is.

As for the other ex-LDP rebels, I confess that I haven't given much thought to them. But it is unlikely that they will matter, unless the coalition ends up with a razor-thin minority. So, if it's about not losing, I would cover my ass with a side bet on a three-way coalition that includes the Watanuki crowd. Sans Mr. Abe, of course. But I think I have a much better than even chance of winning without it.

Mr. Abe does have one big hurdle, though, when the initial report from Education Rebuilding Council comes out later this month. To show you how serious I think the situation is, it's been more than two weeks since feathers flew at the last ERC session, and they haven't even released the summary, let alone the full record, of the proceedings yet. Whatever the contents of the report, it will create some negative publicity, and that should cost the Abe adminstration a couple or percentage points or so in the polls. But the public will not turn to the DPJ for the answers.

So there you have it. Many of the undecideds will sit it out, with nowhere to go, unless something completely unforeseen lights their fire, baby, between now and then. (Say, early summer criminal proceedings against a sitting cabinet minister?) Thus, the superior party and church machines of the coalition will prevail. The coalition will win by not losing.

I agree with you that a foreign policy bump will be very helpful to the coalition's prospects. And I just don't see anything compelling down the line. Nothing good is going to happen on happen on the Korean Peninsula, and Mr. Abe probably wants the Japanese public to keep forgetting that we do provide logistic support to the US in Iraq. And money for other trouble spots in the Middle East (Lebanon, Palestine) buys you slightly better photo-ops than the annual face time with the new Sakura Queen. He'll go slow on nuclear sales to India for obvious reasons. But, as you can see, I believe he can win regardless, as long as he keeps avoiding serious errors.

And now, back to work.

No comments: