I’ve already spent too much time on this, which keeps morphing on me. Even the title doesn’t really work anymore, but I’m posting it here in all its untidiness in the hopes that I can give more clarity to my thoughts at a later date.
I mentioned here that the space between the political agendas of the LDP and DPJ is mostly of tactical rather than strategic origin. Let me expand on that.
First of all, the refueling operations in the Indian Ocean and the extension of the gasoline tax surcharge, the two issues with which the DPJ tried/is trying to force Prime Minister Fukuda to call a snap election, were not even mentioned in the DPJ policy manifest under which it fought the July election. Before that, it is easy to forget that the DPJ was broadly in agreement with Prime Minister Abe’s hallmark initiatives, i.e. bringing patriotism into education and setting constitutional amendment in motion. In fact, if you watch the debate on these and other issues (say, Yauskuni), the real fault lines among the Diet members － in contrast to the tidy but politically imposed borders － cut across party lines on most if not all of the momentous issues* and are far more complex than media reports and some Japan hands will have you believe. As sensible and/or intriguing as so much of the DPJ policy manifest is, the DPJ has deliberately shifted focus away from it and on to a political agenda to further its electoral prospects.
But to what extent will this tacking determine the DPJ’s electoral outcomes? It is instructive to observe the ups and (mostly) downs of LDP fortunes under the bumbling, fumbling Abe administration, or the short-lived, though very real, honeymoon period of the Fukuda administration. The failures of the Abe administration have been detailed and dissected elsewhere; let’s briefly look at the Fukuda administration. Although it is too early to gauge how much the fight over the gasoline tax extension will hurt the Fukuda administration, it is Mr. Fukuda’s mishandling of the public pension issue (and possibly, to a lesser extent, failure to resolve in a timely manner the blood transfusion type C cirrhosis lawsuits) that has had the most impact in bringing down his public support by 10-15 percentage points. The failed (for now) outreach to Ichirō Ozawa to form a Grand Coalition also seems to have undermined his authority and imposed a sense of vulnerability around him. But if the extension of the refueling operations has made any lasting impression on the general public, the effect is almost negligible in proportion to all the political noise that it produced.
In fact, the initial public reception to each of our most recent Prime Ministers as well as the subsequent shifts in their political fortunes tells us the following: The Japanese public remains a patient public, still willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the latest version of the post-1955 establishment regime. But it does not like demonstrated incompetence, indifference, or venality. Conversely, it values competence, compassion, and honor.
With regard to competence and compassion, the LDP, often in association with the bureaucracy, has gifted the DPJ with major mishaps along the way. The DPJ has been somewhat less fortunate with virtue, since Mr. Ozawa, fairly or unfairly, has been unable to keep his name out of the two major money issues that have rocked the Diet, political financing and the Yamada Yōkō/Moriya bribery scandal, both now out of sight, possibly out of mind**. Even so, the DPJ appears to be comfortably ahead of the LDP in the virtue column as well.
Now it was on the basis of these virtues that the DPJ won and, more significantly, the LDP lost the July Upper House election. But can the DPJ win the Lower House general election by default? Can it be sure that Mr. Fukuda will keep repeating the kind of mishaps that hurt him in the virtue column, or that other LDP leaders will resume tripping over themselves en masse? That could turn into a long wait, unless the DPJ acts on its own to effect change.
In fact, the DPJ has been making efforts under Mr. Ozawa, which is where the aforementioned political tacking comes in. However, there is a disturbing tendency to favor no-pain, all-gain promises. This began most famously with the no-new-taxes pledge for its otherwise appealing proposal for public pension consolidation － even Prime Minister Fukuda has shown some interest in it; the consolidation, not the pledge. But a few trillion here, a few trillion there, and, inevitably, it begins looking like real money. This raises competence issues about the DPJ itself.
A regime change under such circumstances will have an effect that far transcends the political game. Whatever the motive for the positions that the DPJ has adopted or will adopt, every promise will have real-world consequences when the DPJ assumes the mantle of power. When you have the votes, you will be compelled to use them.
So where will they go from here?
Actually, the gasoline tax surcharge provides a good opportunity to retool their political agenda. Compromise is inevitable. As April 1 approaches, the two House Presidents will put enormous pressure on the two sides to come to a conclusion. They will put forward a compromise if it comes to that. At that point, I don’t see a scenario, barring some unforeseeable mishandling by the LDP, where the DPJ can refuse to move an inch and, without suffering devastating political damage, keep the Upper House from taking a vote. Similarly, there is no way that the LDP can remain intransigent and expect the surcharge extension to emerge unscathed. The DPJ should consider it a success if it can achieve an agreement that forces the Diet to take a new, publicly accountable look at the more fundamental issues underlying the gasoline taxes. After all, that was the point of the policy manifest in its call to abolish special budgets. There will be no prospects for a pre-Summit snap election if they go this route, but the odds of eventually prevailing will be substantially improved for the DPJ by this show of competence. It will have the not-trivial, added benefit of ensuring that party dissidents on this issue stay in the fold.
* This, by the way, is the main reason why a major realignment of the main political parties is highly unlikely, regardless of the results of the next Lower and Upper House elections. Individual poaching, maybe. But no wholesale defections. During that period, Daisaku Ikeda’s death is the event more likely to be the trigger of a chain reaction, but I believe that even this will take at least one general election to be activated. Besides, Mr. Ikeda, bless his soul, is not showing any signs of ill-health. At least nothing that the public is privy to.
** Unless, of course, new indictments come to the fore There’s been silence on this front, but you never know.