Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fukuda, LDP Up; Ozawa, DPJ Down. By Default?

I have come to believe that the failure of the DPJ to consolidate its gains from the election victory is attributable in great part to Ichiro Ozawa's shortcomings. Here's what I think:

The latest Yomiuri poll (October 6-7) is in, and the Fukuda Cabinet continues to ride high, with approvals outnumbering disapprovals by more than two to one. The post-LDP has widened its lead over the DPJ from 29.3% to 20.9% (September 8-9) in the last poll under the Abe adminstration to 37.8% to 18.0%.. Prime Minister Fukuda also leads DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa in leadership (47.1% to 39.0%), political ideals and objectives (48.1% to 34.1%), ability to explain to the Japanese people (52.3% to 30.2%), and accessibility (69.1% to 17.7%). On what promised to be the signature policy debate of the current Diet session, extension of refueling activities in support of anti—terrorism activities in the Afghan theater, public sentiment, once relatively evenly divided between support, opposed, and undecided, has shifted significantly to 49.1% support against 37.2% opposed.

This, after Mr. Fukuda won the Prime Minister's job with an old-school, faction-oriented campaign as an openly reluctant candidate, inherited Prime Minister Abe's Cabinet wholesale (the only significant change being the replacement of a popular, non-faction Chief Cabinet Secretary with his own (Machimura) faction head), suffered a series of political financing embarrassments including his own, gave an uninspiring inaugural policy speech to the Diet, and has otherwise looked pedestrian and not-quite at ease throughout the initial days of his regime. And the refueling activities have seen their share of unseemly revelations as well…

But consider the competition, or lack of it. Ichiro Ozawa has been conspicuously absent since Mr. Fukuda slipped onstage. He had not been particularly forthcoming during the Abe days, but that could be overlooked somewhat because Mr. Abe appeared not too eager himself to show face, and often lost more than he gained when he did. But hunkering down and producing occasional pronouncements from on high does not work so well against a media-friendly (or, perhaps, friendly-to-the-media) opponent whom the uncommitted public, after an increasingly depressing year under Mr. Abe, would like to see succeed. Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan, and lesser lights like Akira "Mr. Public Pension Scandal" Nagatsuma gamely go against the Prime Minister and his men. But absent Mr. Ozawa, and with barely concealed fragging from the likes of Yukio Edano, it often seems as if all Mr. Fukuda has to do to ace his serve is to put the ball in play.

As for the one issue of substance that seriously affected Mr. Abe's fortunes, the 50 million missing public pension accounts will come to roost again, if and when Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe fails to make a show of sufficient progress come March, Mr. Abe's self-imposed deadline for cleaning up the books. But in the time being and beyond, the more fundamental and substantial issue - in the sense that it affects the fortunes of all voters - the future shape and scope of the public pension system and the means to fund it - must be addressed. Here, the DPJ proposal of a basic pension with universal coverage has for various reasons attracted substantial positive interest But the DPJ decided to fight the last election by changing its mind and promising to maintain consumption tax rates at the current 5% level, use the consumption tax revenue solely to fund the basic pension system, and make up the enormous revenue shortfall by ill-defined expenditure cuts. Now, it is being forced to talk its way around it. The funding issue is a serious policy debate that has ramifications well beyond the public pension system, because the consumption tax will be an integral part of the inevitable policy package to deal with the enormous public debt overhang. Measures must be taken soon (unless the ruling coalition decides to give up its promise to achieve primary balance of the national budget by FY 2011), and no independent expert will tell you that the consumption tax can remain untouched. The LDP is not exactly forthright on this matter as of yet, but at least it is talking about it.

The post-WW II electorate in the developed democracies has become less committed, less ideological over the years. This trend has accelerated since the end of the Cold War. Political parties that have adapted to this by de-emphasizing ideological purity and broadening their bases have thrived, while those that have not have suffered the consequences. One consequence of this shift is that the policies of successful political parties have also been converging., in broad contours if not in precise detail. And a corollary of this loss of distinction is an increasing focus on personalities, likeability, if you will, the face the party presents to the media, the public, the electorate. I believe that this is the reason for the sometimes dramatic changes in party fortunes from simple changes in leadership, when there are few or no drastic changes in policies (despite, in the case of Abe-to-Fukuda, a major shift in the personal ideological coloring).

It is notable that both the DPJ intransigence over the ISAFOEF-MIO refueling activities and its insistence on freezing the consumption tax rate as part of its public pension proposal are both personal decisions of Mr. Ozawa made in the face of considerable internal opposition. Thus, without Mr. Ozawa front and center to put a presentable face on these and other parts of the DPJ manifest, DPJ will come to resemble the Abe administration in effect, a political force without effective leadership or discipline.

Many things can happen between now and September 2009, when the House of Representatives must hold its next election unless the Prime Minister has called a snap election before then, and the Fukuda team will score its share of own goals by that time. Even now, as the Diet is in session, the DPJ is throwing a formidable array of debaters at the soft-sell Prime Minister and his team in the hopes that the steady barrage at irregularities and shortcomings at every level will erode public support and confidence. Still, barring economic catastrophe, The Great Un-aligned Electorate will not throw its support to a DPJ that lacks a public face to give coherence to a party fraught with personality clashes and policy fissures.

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