Thursday, May 13, 2010

Profiling the (Mostly) LDP Renegades

This has been sitting on my hard disk for ten days. I’m not sure that I can do much more with it, so I’m putting it out here without further editing before it rots on the vine. (The Note will be forthcoming, RS.) That’s it for now.

The 2 May virtual deadline for starting new political parties before the July Upper House election in Japan having passed without further incident—the names of parties established after that date are not protected from copycats, which can cause serious problems in the proportional seats vote—it’s a good time to take a look at the upside of the flurry of LDP split-offs for the July Upper House election and beyond. None of them should emerge from the vote with more than a handful of Upper House seats. However, the DPJ is increasingly likely to fall short of a simple Upper House majority and the motley three-party coalition faces a growing chance of losing its collective majority. Thus, the new parties deserve a look as actors in a post-election shakeup. True, Komeito, the political arm of the lay Buddhist organization Sokagakkai, remains the best bet as a post-election coalition partner: it will be able to ensure an Upper House majority by itself for a DPJ-led coalition and is policy-wise more compatible with the latter than its troublesome populist bedmates. However, it has limited upside due to its near-total reliance on its religious base. Thus, the upstarts bear watching with an eye to the future beyond the immediate post-election coalition makeup. With that, here’s a roll call.

Your Party (YP): Heads the list in the latest Nikkei-TV Tokyo poll (23-25 April) with 11% in voter intent—after DPJ and LDP at 20% and 4% respectively. Headed by Yoshimi Watanabe, the YP consists of four Lower House members, two LDP and one DPJ defectors and an independent, and one Upper House member, an independent AIDS activist. The YP has by far the biggest upside. First, they share a small-government, free-market orientation that established parties have moved away from in the post-Koizumi years. This makes the YP an unlikely coalition partner with the DPJ under the politics-first Ozawa, but gives it a policy coherence lacking in the other new alternatives. This should serve it well in a broader, if more distant, realignment. Second, it has yout on its side—an appealing quality for an electorate deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. All five Diet members are youthful and articulate post-baby boomers. Third, it will have the largest number of seats among the newcomers—its voter intent share translates into a minimum of five to six proportional Upper House seats in addition to its four incumbents. Finally, it is the only splinter group that has LDP, DPJ and truly independent Diet members.

New Party Reform: Taken over by and renamed for articulate, brainy public favorite and reformist Yoichi Masuzoe, it only took a 2% share in the aforementioned poll, but surged to 7% on the voter intent question. That difference can only be attributed to Masuzoe—he's essentially Moses Malone with four guys from Petersburg, Virginia. If the NPR can hold on to something like that until July, it'll add one or two proportional Upper House seats to the two that are up for reelection in addition to Masuzoe’s, which comes up for reelection in 2013. Still, that’ll only give it five to six, a far cry from the 10-15 seats that the YP is targeting, even if it also retains its one regional seat that is up for reelection. Masuzoe’s star was tarnished when the reform-minded maverick threw in his lot with a group of old-school politicians facing retirement or uphill battles in the July election. Lacking policy coherence and with its leader commanding little to no personal loyalty from his ex-peers in the LDP, the YP’s upside is limited in any post-election maneuvering and the more distant, if roader realignment.

The Sunrise Party of Japan: Middle-of-the-road reformist and fiscal conservative Kaoru Yosano cast his lot with nationalist counter-reform-minded Takeo Hiranuma—to whom he was promptly forced to take a back seat—and friends. The media image of a marriage of convenience among over-the-hill politicians—the average age of its Diet members is seventy—severely limits the SUP’s upside. With three Lower House members and two Lower House members, it will be lucky to break even by holding on to the Upper House seat up for reelection and picking up a proportional seat if the Nikkei-TV Tokyo poll is to be believed,.

Kunio Hatoyama: The sixty-one year old younger brother of the prime minister is the odd man out. He never fulfilled his early promise as the Golden Boy of the LDP; now his peregrinations have left him with no one—not even the members of the LDP rank-and-file to whom he reportedly gave financial assistance early in their political careers—by his side as he impetuously bolted once again in his belief that he would be the precipitator of a new realignment of the Japanese political order.

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