Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ichirō Ozawa’s Photo-Op in China Displays His Weaknesses

Befitting a top disciple of Kakuei Tanaka, who as Prime Minister reestablished diplomatic relationships with China, Ichirō Ozawa has long been known as a Sinophile*. So it is no surprise for him to be seen hopping on a plane every once in a while to visit his Old Friends there. Now 44 Diet members and a gaggle of lesser lights as an entourage seem a little too much, but it is hard to begrudge his first real victory procession since the July Upper House election. Besides, this was supposed to be the off-season between the post-election extraordinary Diet session, when housekeeping matters as well as the expiration of the counter-terrorism act and other pressing needs would be taken care of in a matter of weeks, and the January commencement of the regular session where the FY 2008 budget, taxes, and other weightier matters would be taken up through the early summer. Besides, the DPJ claimed, the LDP had already given the green light.

But that was then. The extraordinary session, if the DPJ hardliners have their way, will drag on all the way into mid-January. At that point, if the ruling coalition exercises its Lower House supermajority to extend the refueling extension bill and the DPJ implausibly manages to force a snap election, (or slightly more plausibly, the LDP believes and can convince junior Coalition partner New Kōmeitō to believe that the DPJ has committed so many blunders that their polls show them that there will be few if any better opportunities to call one,) it will be another month before the Diet can be summoned for its annual regular session and the new Lower House is up and running again. This means that there will only one-and-a-half months instead of the customary two-and-a-half to pass the budget (a delay would be inconvenient, but there are rules in place to deal with it) and extend time-limited legislation (most importantly special tax measures, which typically lapse as of the fiscal year (1 April-31 March)’s end), and if possible pass all the budget-related bills**. And to do all this with a split Diet at that. The electorate, regardless of individual positions on the refueling extension, is not going to like that***.

In short, the opposition must demonstrate its sense of urgency, while dragging its feet as surreptitiously as possible. Any action that runs counter to this imperative must have a huge upside if it is to be undertaken. And taking Thursday and Friday off to go to Beijing for a three-day photo-op is not****.

Seriously, what is Mr. Ozawa’s entourage going to achieve in those three days? Joint development agreement on the East China gas fields? Get the Chinese to turn the screw on North Korea on behalf of the abductees and their families? As if the Chinese authorities would do something to piss off the Fukuda administration so that Tarō Asō could take a crack at offing the Prime Minister?) Friday is a relatively slow day in the Diet (although committees, even the plenary, have held Friday sessions), but a lot of work gets done/committees hold lots of meetings on Thursdays.

The LDP will not make too much of this; Mr. Fukuda must make his own trip with his own team (fewer Diet members, but a good number of Cabinet Ministers and their subordinates) in January, so they don’t want to say anything now that will be thrown back at them. They don’t need to; in politics, own goals have a way of repeating themselves, as the LDP painfully learned with Shinzō Abe at the helm.

Finally, this incident highlights three of Mr. Ozawa’s most serious weaknesses. For one thing, he is not a good debater. He does not have the patient wonkishness of a Kaoru Yosano, the acidulous wits of a Naoto Kan, or the sound-bite sensibilities of a Junichirō Koizumi. He is at his best, if you can call it that, when he can simply intimidate and hold forth; bluster his way through. He is Shintarō Ishihara without his intelligence.

How much of this personal flaw is due to a second weakness, his asocial personality (anecdotes from Kōzō Watanabe and other associates of his reinforce this impression from his public appearances or lack thereof), or the other way around is open to debate. What is obvious is that he does his best to avoid all public forums, except set pieces, where his lack of command over policy details as well as the give and take of political discourse does not show.

These two explain the origins of his disdain, conscious and unconscious, for the visible political process in the Diet, the give-and-take, which in turn explains why he did not see the need to rethink his victory procession to Beijing.

And the third? His inability to take counsel, also related to the first two, that kept his acolytes and his DPJ rivals from forcing him to rethink, at a minimum, his itinerary and retinue.

* The latest MS Word believes that there is no such word as Sinophile It thoughtfully suggests as an alternative Sinophobe, in my view not the best way to convince the Chinese authorities to help Microsoft deal with its intellectual property issues.

** The last item is less inconvenient than the tax measures and other legislation that, like Cinderella’s entourage, expire automatically. The execution of individual budget items can be delayed, many for months, if need be.

*** Yukio Hatoyama, who makes up for his lack of charm with a healthy load of common sense, the yin to his brother’s yang, has indicated that he might be willing to support an Upper House vote on the refueling resumption act instead of just waiting for the 60-day limit to lapse. It remains to be seen how many of his DPJ colleagues realize that if there is going to be a snap election being fought on account of an override vote, it is better that the DPJ not be blamed for an extra month of delay that forces a delay of the more urgent, annual business that must be taken care of before the end of FY 2007, i.e. 31 March 2008.

**** They are coming back on Saturday. When I wrote this, I had mistakenly thought the 6th was Friday.

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