Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sentaku Unfurls Both Wings on Dolls Festival Day

… for what it’s worth…

The Sentaku movement and its Diet member counterpart held their joint inaugural meeting on March 3, just in time for the Dolls Festival. I’ve already posted on the main movement here. (does this count too?) This is my report on the Diet member Sentaku.

Bipartisan and nonpartisan movements involving Diet members keep coming and (rarely completely) going, but they’ve been getting more attention from the media in the Twisted Diet era. That’s natural, since nothing will attract more eyeballs than a political Big Bang. And some of the also have their own private-sector counterpart initiatives. But the Diet member Sentaku is in many ways different from the others.

First of all, the leadership is carefully divided between the LDP and the DPJ, from the two co-chairmen to the eight members each (including the co-chairman) in the standing committee (New Kōmeitō has two seats). The 107-strong membership is also deliberately balanced between the LDP with 51, DPJ with 47, NK with eight, and the tiny Japan New Party with a single member. In principle, seven terms for a Lower House members - the point in the old days when you began to feel more than due for your first Cabinet appointment - appears in principle to be the upper limit for membership*. Perhaps partly because of this, it appears that none of the people currently holding key LDP party positions or Cabinet or serious sub-Cabinet positions are included**.

Second, membership is skewed towards the Lower House, particularly in the case of the LDP. The Lower House-Upper House breakdown is (LDP 44-7; DPJ 31-16;NK 5-3; and NPP 1-0). This is related to the next point...

Third, the Diet member Sentaku is likely to have a very limited shelf life. To quote from the main Sentaku statement, “Sentakuwill conduct its activities in order to make the next [Lower House] general election*** a fruitful one for the electorate and will end its role with the announcement of the general election.” The Diet member Sentaku is a separate entity and need not mirror the lifecycle of the movement itself. But it does give as one of its two objectives the following:

“Make the next [Lower House] general election a historical “election for regime choice” that has significance for the nation by “reinvigorating policy debate” and “improving [policy] manifests while engaging in dialogue with Sentaku, as formed by volunteers from various fields.”

The other objective lists the main policy issues that the Diet member Sentaku covers, and basically repeats the main Sentaku’s objectives. It does not give any indication that the Diet member Sentaku will go beyond the procedural timeline given in the first objective. Thus I will be surprised if the Diet member Sentaku does outlive the main body, at least in its current form. Sankei, for one, agrees that it is only supposed to last until the general election.

To sum up, the Sentaku process has been set up explicitly to conduct a public dialogue within and between the general and political leaderships in order to force the political parties to come up with meaningful policy manifests to fight the next election. The leading members attending the inaugural press conference, posted in its entirety on the 21 Seiki Rinchō website as a video clip below the documents, also made it explicitly clear that the non-partisan dialogue is not intended in any way to promote a cross-party coalition of any sorts.

I won’t rule out the possibility of long-term ramifications. If I were to characterize the Diet members congregating in the Diet member Sentaku, I would say that it brings many elements of the (relatively speaking) conservative-modernist elements of the DPJ and the (relatively speaking) moderate-modernist elements of the LDP. To that extent, there is a certain loose affinity in their approach to the issues. So it’s plausible that they may enjoy working with each other so much that they may come to form the core of a broader coalition in the context of a major realignment.

However, a Big Bang will be a long time in coming, if ever. There’s too much crisscrossing between all the worthy causes and special interests, not to mention the persistence of factions as launch pads for candidacies (see Nobuteru Ishihara for the LDP****), for Diet members not to think twice, count to ten, twiddle their thumbs, etc. before they jump ship. The LDP has long lived with these differences. The ideological and personal fault lines are even deeper in the DPJ, if such a thing is possible. But the big prize, plus the transaction costs of a political musical chairs game, should strill keep both sides going.

The LDP and DPJ are poised somewhere between 21st Century meta-habatsu and a Japanese version of the Dem.-Rep. matchup. The main value of the two Sentakus will likely consist in the potential for a larger, more serious dialogue that they bring to the policy formation process on the two sides. Given the formless, inertia-laden approach that the LDP is in danger of reverting to and the lurching cakewalk of a DPJ buffeted between the williwaw of public opinion and the mood swings of its enigmatic leader, that will be no mean feat - certainly much more than anything that most of the other cross-faction, non-partisan study groups that have been cropping up since time immemorial have ever achieved.

* 11-term LDP member Kōji Yasuoka is listed, but as komon, or “advisor”, a title usually conferred in Japan on retired political and business leaders. 6-term DPJ member Katsuya Okada and 5-term Seiji Maehara are also listed as komon, likely for that very reason. There are, of course, many other uses for the word, but life is too short to go into that unless someone is willing to pay me to write it.

** This gives the LDP membership something of a Koizumi/Abe air.

*** The term used here is 総選挙, which specifically refers to the Lower House election.

**** I’d always regarded Mr. Ishihara as a pleasant, intelligent, but somewhat lightweight figure that the LDP has allowed to punch significantly above his weight because of the looming presence of his father Shintarō Ishihara, the popular Tokyo Governor, and former Prime Minister aspirant. But his accession to the large Yamazaki faction puts him in place as a contender himself, perhaps even as Yasuo Fukuda’s successor. The Yamazaki faction does not have any other visible candidates, least of all Taku Yamazaki himself.

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