Friday, August 22, 2008

DPJ Squelches Dissent, Ozawa to Run Unopposed

It’s almost official; next month, Ichiro Ozawa will be reelected unopposed to a second term as DPJ President. Yoshihiko Noda, despite egging on from Mr. Ozawa’s arch-nemesis Yukio Edano, became the latest and probably the last to give up when he was unable to muster his own 20-strong Kaseikai (Let All the Flowers Bloom Association) faction in support for his candidacy. I had argued before that it would be a public relations disaster for the DPJ and Mr. Ozawa if they went on to wage an open election. The current party mainstream obviously had the same idea and put enormous pressure not only on Mr. Noda’s group—among other things, it apparently threatened to withdraw electoral support from members of his group currently out of office—but also Seiji Maehara and his people. Here are a few thoughts that I hope will be of use in looking ahead:

1. The lead-up to the eventual non-election exposed yet again the deep chasm between the old-school, center-left coalition mainstream and the new-school, fiscal/national-security conservative opposition. But what we saw will be nothing compared to the fight that will break out if the DPJ is unable to form a government after the Lower House election, leading to Mr. Ozawa’s resignation. In that case, the ability to regroup around a compromise figure—generational and ideological tweener and ex-leader Katsuya Okada, who has been careful to qualify his support for Mr. Ozawa?—will be crucial to its survival. And victory is still far from a sure thing, since Komeito is unlikely to desert the LDP.

2. In setting the legislative schedule, the LDP has been relatively accommodating with regard to the twists and turns that the DPJ has been going through. This did not begin with the upcoming session either. In the wake of the devastating rebuke at the hands of the electorate in the 2007 Upper House election, the LDP has sought to project a conciliatory profile for public consumption. Mr. Ozawa has exploited this to the DPJ’s advantage, wrong-footing the LDP on several occasions including most famously the temporary expiration of the gasoline tax surcharge at the end of FY2007. One side effect of his idiosyncratic, highly-centralized form of decision making is that is that Kenji Yamaoka, Ozawa confidante in charge of Diet affairs for the DPJ—think, House Whip—has often been caught in the lurch, most recently in his failure to anticipate and transmit Mr. Ozawa’s wishes to have the crucial opening weeks of the Diet session avoid overlapping with the now all-but-aborted aborted DPJ election. There’s nothing wrong with this for the DPJ’s electoral fortunes as long as Mr. Ozawa has the majority of both the public and the DPJ Diet members behind him. But losing intraparty control by way of institutional acquiescencethe acquiescence leading to loss of intraparty control on its leader means that a miscalculation on his part could lead to a public relations disaster, or worse. Such incidents, repeated, could be fatal to the opposition’s hopes. Remember, poll numbers for Prime Minister Fukuda and the LDP may be awful, but Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ have yet to win the public’s trust.

3. All that aside, I am impressed by the powerful full-court press that the DPJ leadership has put on Mr. Ozawa’s potentialspotential rivals and their supporters. Open dissent, or even careless speculation unchecked, can only make the leader and leadership look weak and vacillating, as the Fukuda administration has amply demonstrated. We shall see in the coming months if, as we say here in Japan, “the rain has caused the ground to firm up” for the DPJ.

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