Monday, May 25, 2009

Are We Looking at the Right Coalition Partner for the DPJ?

The DPJ-Shin-Ryokufukai-People’s New Party (PNP)-Nihon Shinto (NSP) coalition forms a Registered Upper House Association (considered a single party for parliamentary purposes, it’s a more formal version of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the United States) holding 118 of the 242 seats in the Upper House. Since two of the remaining 224 seats belong to the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the House, who leave their respective parties—in this case No.1 DPJ and No.2 LDP—and the Chairman casts the tiebreaking vote, the DPJ-led coalition needs two more seats to reach the 120 threshold to ensure passage of legislative bills without a supermajority in the Lower House.

As a practical matter, if the Japan Communist Party (JCP) decides to take its seven Upper House seats off the table and abstain, the DPJ-led coalition will have more than enough votes to pass the relevant legislative bill. Then there are the independents. So it’s not as simple as that. Suffice to say, though, that the DPJ-led coalition needs the cooperation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with its five votes, to ensure that it will be able to secure an Upper House majority without the cooperation of the JCP. Thus, the SDP will demand its pound of flesh in return for the loan of its votes, pushing domestic and foreign policy further to the left than its numbers on their own could ever justify.

The formal Upper House coalition as it is currently constituted without the SDP has its own problems. The PNP is a throwback to the pre-Koizumi LDP. It is reportedly pushing for a three-year, 50-trillion, public-works payout (financed perhaps by maintaining the gasoline surcharge), as well as a much-publicized bid for a return to the pre-privatization Post Office system. But these demands threaten to throw a wrench and much of the rest of the kit and caboodle into the DPJ’s reformist plans. This is obviously where the best-laid plans and rumors regarding Hidenao Nakagawa’s plans for a breakout rom the LDP to form a new centrist-progressive party come from.

Now some of reformist Nakagawa’s ideas—cut unnecessary expenditures, for example—dovetail nicely with the DPJ’s. But the hypothetical Nakagawa’s hypothetical startup-deck party will have its own newly formed political agenda, and some of the particulars are bound to conflict with the DPJ’s. Compromising its principles from the outset is an uncomfortable position to be for a new political party to be in. And this is where the New Komeito, with its 20! Upper House votes, comes in.

Komeito stands up for the little guy, and has a decidedly pacifist outlook. Otherwise, its political agenda is quite flexible, as evidenced by its political meanderings between the LDP and its opponents. In fact, the DPJ’s annual multitrillion-Yen outlay for child support checks to households with under-aged children could be considered a permanent, more refined version of the 2 trillion helicopter money that the New Komeito forced the Aso administration to cough up. And with regard to the DPJ’s generally more conciliatory approach towards China and the Koreas on history and other thorny bilateral issues, Komeito arguably has more in common with it than with the LDP’s more hard-line position. The DPJ’s reluctance—however tactical—to project the Japanese military except under the strictest of UN controls also appeals to the New Komeito, which has been forced to grudgingly go along with the LDP on such matters.

As we have seen here, the New Komeito is at least as natural an ally of the DPJ as a Nakagawa-led LDP breakout could be. And it’s not as if the Gakkai-Komei complex hasn’t flip-flopped between the LDP and an anti-LDP coalition before. Which begs the question: Why, then, is no one talking about the possibilities? Two names: Ichiro Ozawa, and Daisaku Ikeda, the lifetime head of Sokagakkai (an extremely powerful laic organization in the Nichiren Buddhist sect) and the power behind the New Komeito throne. The animosity between the two run deep, and is a clear hindrance to the New Komeito breaking out and joining a DPJ-led coalition.

That being said, there are no laws of physics that preclude a DPJ-New Komeito coalition. The idea deserves more attention than the media has been devoting to it, as Japan’s body politic approaches the Lower House general election.


Janne Morén said...

"Otherwise, its political agenda is quite flexible, ..."

A very kind turn of phrase. Bendable convictions aside, I do suspect the policy-by-policy similarities are overshadowed by the deeper philosophical differences.

If I have read these parties right (and it's a real possibility I am really off base; correct me if I am), the New Komeito is kin to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. A strong social agenda of course, but one whose overall thrust is deeply conservative, with a return to the "real" religiously motivated morals of a bygone era.

And while the DPJ is not exactly a hotbed of progressive thought (would calling it sprawlingly centrist be very off base?) there is a comparatively strong constituency within the party that does care for things like gender equality and sexual discrimination, and are looking for an opportunity to adapt legal and governmental systems to a modern, individualistic society.

I suspect that at least in part, the very different ideas of what constitutes a "good society" is a major impediment for anything but the most temporary, case-based cooperation.

Or I am simply projecting a political situation I know well onto one that I don't without adequately allow for the differences.

LB said...

Interesting read. All of which leaves me hoping (wishing?) for the scenario I read elsewhere: in the next election, the LDP is thoroughly trounced. The party collapses as members peel off to realign themselves in an attempt to remain relevant (much like what the "Clean Hands Party" has done: "Screw morals and principles, we want to have POWER!!). Shortly thereafter, the DPJ collapses as all the various elements of the political spectrum it has absorbed over the years, elements really united only in their opposition to the LDP, but not in any true sense of common agenda or policy.

With the collapse of both the LDP and DPJ, the various pols realign yet again with other pols that actually share their ideas and policies, leading to new parties with policy planks of their own that they will actually stand on.

Of course, while I am dreaming I also dream that the whole Diet makeup gets redone on the US model, with proportional representation in the lower house and fixed representation per prefecture in the upper house. And Diet members are there only because they actually won the seat they stood for in the election, not because of a weird and (IMHO) undemocratic system where one can lose but still get a "proportional seat". I hate those. It is like those people who say "It isn't about winning or losing, it's about having fun..." Wrong. You win or you lose - if you don't like losing, do what it takes to win.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: The aggressive, proselytizing period of the Sokagakkai’s religious lifecycle seems to be over, and its conservatism has always seemed to be one of temperament than all-powerful doctrine. I do not think that they have a problem with the position that a large part of the DPJ Diet members appear to be taking on social equity issues that you point to, including the highly symbolic one of imperial succession as well as the political rights of permanent residents. Thus, I think that the New Komeito will fit quite comfortably into the center-left section, i.e. mainstream, of the DPJ.

Having said that, I have to agree that the analogy with the Christian Democrats makes sense. They are both relentlessly square and goody-goody. And they do share a common history of oppression by authoritarian-totalitarian powers. The Christian Democrats, though, come across as more cerebral. Not that I know that much about them to judge.

LB: In due time perhaps. I’m not counting on that total makeover scenario happening after the upcoming Lower House election though. I also have a hard time imagining that if the major political parties break up, Diet members can re-coalesce around coherent sets of policy positions on a broad range of not necessarily well-connected issues. But we are going into a period of great uncertainty, that’s for sure, so we can’t rule out what would have been outlandish scenarios “just” a couple of administrations ago.

I have no thoughts about the political system except to say that I prefer a one-chamber solution and that I too like the decisiveness of first-past-the-stile.

LB said...

I don't know about a one-chamber solution, Okumura-san. It seems to me Japan faces a very similar problem to that the US faced 200-plus years ago. If there is but one chamber and all seats are apportioned by population (say, 1 seat per 500,000 people) then the entire country will be run by "Greater Tokyo" (a fictional place including Tokyo Saitama and Kanagawa). Apportion seats based on a set number per prefecture so all are "equal" and they become anything but - 1 Iwatian having a voice as powerful as 32 Tokyo-ites? That's not workable either.

Anyway, I fear you are right about the prospects for a "quick" realignment. And the more the shame, since the DPJ is little more than a slightly more schizophrenic version of the LDP. Even if they win in a massive landslide in the next election (something I tend to doubt, they may win a majority but it will probably be a slim one) I don't see them as doing anything that really breaks with what the LDP has been doing all these years.

But maybe I'm just being a pessimist. There is an advantage to that - expect the worst, and you are unlikely to be disappointed.

Jun Okumura said...

LB: Now I’m pretty sure that the Upper House will never vote in favor of a constitutional amendment for a one-chamber solution, so it’ll never go to the national referendum. Having said that, I don’t see much of a reason why the existence of administrative entities such as prefectures should be a reason for overriding the one-man-one-vote principle of a modern democracy. The United States, born of a compact of previously independent states, is a different animal. There is no practical reason why North Dakota should have an equal say as New York in important matters of state, but that what the states signed up for, and as far as I am aware there’s no serious talk at any level to alter that situation.

By contrast, the Japanese provinces are the product of the Meiji government, based only in part on the preexisting han, themselves often been altered by the shifting fortunes of the individual daimyo houses. One piece of circumstantial evidence that the province is not deeply embedded in the political ethos here is the casualness with which doshu-sei, the merger of the 47 provinces into 9 to 11 super-provinces is discussed. Imagine the furor of U.S. Senators and governors, not to mention state legislatures, if such an idea were raised in the United States.

Incidentally, there are other ways to deviate from the one-man-one-vote system—the U.K. House of Lords and the Hong Kong functional constituencies being a couple of good examples in functional democracies—but those are the consequences of their own historical circumstances. I’d bet against them surviving national plebiscites, though that won’t happen; that, I think, is no different from the Japanese case.

There may not be that much real separation between the LDP and DPJ and they each may be collection of an assortment of people with a wide variety of outlook and inclinations. But is the lack of separation such a bad thing? Lack of coherence? I’ll come back to these issues later.

LB said...

Okumura-san, you are of course correct about the differing histories behind US states and Japanese prefectures, and that people's attachments to prefectures are not as strong as (some) Americans' attachments to their home state.

That said, what the 江戸っ子 seem to be blithely oblivious to (or aware of, but unable to comprehend why it is a big deal), is that while the provincials may not be willing to fight for the right to stay Tochigian (no "Give me 干瓢 or give me Death!"), they often do not appreciate being told by Tokyo how things should be done. Governor Hashimoto in Osaka is quite right to complain about the condescending attitude coming out of Nagata-cho - what works for Tokyo is not guaranteed to work anywhere else, and in fact may well be the last thing needed locally. Japan is a small country, true, but it is not Monaco-small.

If Japan were to ever go for "macro-prefectures", the situation would be the same. It really matters not if there are 47 prefectures or 9 - if the sole deciding factor of how much of a voice any one gets is how many people live there, then the whole country gets effectively run by one prefecture.

Also, don't underestimate the practical procedural benefits of having two houses. While the apportionment systems devised in the US were primarily a means to keep New England happy that they were not going to be run over roughshod by Virginia, the different structures and terms of office of the Senate and House also serve to prevent mob rule. With only 2-year terms and strong populist instincts, the House has often managed to come up with some truly stupid ideas just because they were "popular" at the moment. The Senate provides a deliberative balance. Senators are in office longer, and face election less often. They can often afford to buck "popular will" to an extent as by the next time they are up for election John Q. Public will perhaps have forgotten what he was so worked up about several years before. This is why so few Senators become President, or are held to not be fit for the job if they have been in the Senate for a while; they are pontificating consensus-seekers, not trend-makers or leaders. But I digress...

I have long thought that one of the major problems with the Upper House in the Diet was that they were stripped of any real strength post-war at the urging of GHQ. Why on Earth GHQ did that is beyond me - as Americans surely they would have known of the benefits of having both Houses being able to say "No" to the other. As it stands now, the Upper House can say "no", but it rarely seems to actually mean anything. As long as one party holds enough votes in the Lower House, whatever they want to pass will pass, Good, Bad or Ugly.

"Is the lack of separation such a bad thing?" Well, it is if you want the voters to have a choice. As it is now, all voters in Japan have is The Party Led by Rich Frat Boy from Political Dynasty A as opposed to The Party Led by Puppet Rich Frat Boy from Political Dynasty B. At least they both share a somewhat common appeal to the voters: "Don't vote for B because they have no experience in power" vs. "Vote for B because we have no experience in power".

What a choice... no wonder some people throw away their votes on the Communists, Socialists and Yoda, I mean, People's New Party...

Jun Okumura said...

LB: I think that there are two different questions here. One is: Where should the line between the powers and responsibilities of the central government and those of the local governments be drawn? That’s the “Tokyo” question that Governor Hashimoto is complaining about. He’s in good company if Tokyo Governor Ishihara’s frequent griping is any indication. It’s a difficult question at both the macro and micro levels, but it exists everywhere in Japan. The other question, which we’ve been discussing for the most part, is the following: How should we design a legislative system? There is no easy answer to this one either because it cannot be answered without reference to the historical and socio-cultural circumstances that shape the politics of each national or local jurisdiction. (For example, the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is going to end up giving Tamil-dominant provinces a measure of autonomy.) Here, attributing equal electoral value at the national level to the individual Tokyoite and Iwatenian voters does not necessarily mean that the interests of the former will prevail over the latter’s at the national level. There is the broader urban versus rural/city versus the country debate, but I question whether an electoral system that has favored the provinces has actually benefited the Japanese nation. In any case, the second question is a somewhat related but nevertheless quite different “Tokyo” issue.

I am aware of the argument (and some of the reality) regarding the U.S. legislative body, but I think that it’s mainly a post facto one unique to U.S. circumstances. A fixed 2-year term under a Presidential system is very different from a 4-year term under a Prime Minister with powers to call a snap election. Note that the British system is for most practical purposes a one-chamber affair.

With regard to “choice”, I have a new post here, where I attempt to explain the values of a choice between the DPJ and the LDP. Will I like it though? Let’s just say, Sometimes I will, then again I I think I won’t.