Saturday, May 29, 2010

Kicked Out of Cabinet, Protest Party Ponders Next Move

Sorry I haven’t been following up on my promises, and comments. Here’s a piece, a little too wonkish to make its way to Eurasia Group clients, but hopefully informative for people who want some background on what’s going down in the Japanese political scene. Unedited, but I have to cook some pasta; it’s 20:31 in Tokyo.

Now that Prime Minister Hatoyama has dismissed Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima from her cabinet post for making it clear that she would refuse to add her signature to the cabinet decision—by custom, all cabinet decisions and other official cabinet acts must be unanimous—speculation turns to whether or not the SDP will remain in the coalition, a course of action Prime Minister Hatoyama and DPJ don Ichiro Ozawa are more than willing to oblige.

The quid pro quo in the alliance between the DPJ and SPD is fairly straightforward. The SDP gives its support to DPJ candidates in return for input on policy*. It’s easy to forget that the SDP stands for anything more than post-war pacifism, but it continues to push policies to help the socio-economic underdogs and otherwise support antiestablishment causes. Its landmark achievement in this Diet session is a legislative bill that severely limits the labor dispatching business. Seeing dispatched workers and other non-permanent forms of employment as the major cause of falling wages, it teamed up with the PNP, the other minority coalition partner, to overturn a compromise between the government, business, and big labor and force the Hatoyama administration to further tighten the screw. But inevitably, there have been far more disappointments than accomplishments. The SDP has had to set aside its anti-nuclear power stance in favor of the DPJ’s climate change agenda, all but give up on enfranchising permanent residents in local government elections, and accept the dispatch of Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ships for anti-piracy patrol near Somalia**, to name a few prominent examples of its typical left-wing protest agenda.

The setbacks can take its toll at the voting stations. Its leaders remember well that it was decimated (in the original sense) when it gained the prime minister’s chair in 1994 in exchange for abandoning its opposition to the Japan-US alliance and accepting the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces. Since then, it has steadily declined in the polls as protest voters shifted to the Japan Communist Party*** and floater voters found other, new non-LDP alternatives to turn to. The reversion, more or less, to the original 2006/2009 plan for moving US Marines helicopters from Futenma to the vicinities of Camp Schwab came to strike at the heart of the SDP’s reason d’être as the anti-alliance, pro-underdog party because of Hatoyama’s near-criminal negligence around the issue. Acquiescing would have meant running the risk of further alienating its core left-wing supporters.

It is clear that Ichiro Ozawa, by far the single most powerful man in the DPJ now, want to keep the camel in the tent. His priorities seem to be: 1) stay in power in the DPJ, 2) minimize losses in the July upper house election, and 3) destroy the LDP. Priority 1) means that he must give up the floater vote and concentrate on roping in special interests/captive voters****. That explains his courting of the Japan Post cadres in defiance of MSM. And the 4% more or less of actual voters that the SDP may be able to convince to vote for DPJ candidates—I’m guessing less if the SDP stays in the coalition—will be more than enough to tip close elections.

The big question for the SDP is: Should it consider continued input on policy questions—there is no one in Japanese politics whose reward and punishment are as sure and swift as Ozawa—is worth risking its long-term viability as a focal point for the protest vote? After all, you can’t root for the underdog if you are dead.

We’ll know the answer on Sunday, when the SDP leadership convenes to decide what to do next.

* It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The DPJ supported a few SDP candidates in single seat districts in the 2009 lower house election and has agreed in the July upper house election to refrain from putting up a second candidate in the two-seat upper-house Niigata-Prefecture district. The latter is little more than symbolic, since the SDP has little hope of outpolling the LDP candidate for the “other” seat.

** Kiyomi Tsuji, a member of the SDP leadership and sub-cabinet appointee, is the founder and major supporter of the Peace Boat initiative, which according to its website is “a Japan-based international non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.” In May 2009, the Peace Boat sought and received protection from the JMSDF escort ship on duty when it passed through the Gulf of Aden. The irony was not lost on the Japanese public and media.

*** Take a look at the post-Murayama cabinet upper house elections. The DPJ SDP (thank you, Michael) has steadily lost ground, with 7.79% of the national proportional seat vote in 1998, 6.63% in 2001, 5.35% in 2004, and 4.47% in 2007. The JCP has done somewhat better, surging to 14.60% in 1998, though slipping to 7.91% in 2001, 7.80% in 2004, and 7.48% in 2007.

**** Special interests include labor; a typical group of captive voters is the Sokagakkai.


Michael Strausz said...

Interesting post. It is hard for me to imagine the SDP staying in the coalition without any cabinet representation. When I heard that Hatoyama fired Fukushima I assumed that the coalition was finished. I guess it will come down to the SDP's calculations about the Upper House election.

Incidentally, in your *** footnote, where you say "The DPJ has steadily lost ground," I think you mean "The SDP has steadily lost ground."

Jun Okumura said...


Thank you for the correction.

The SDP has election issues, and punishment coming from Ozawa is as sure as death and taxes. Not so incidentally, I had to alter my assessment since an anonymous commenter pointed out a major error in my understanding of the SDP representation in the lower house. Please read the addendum/blooper alert in my next post.

Incidentally, your TCU link refuses to load; it keeps timing out.