Who’d a-thunk. With former Prime Minister Hatoyama’s surprise (okay, so much for my predictive powers) full-throated support, Ichiro Ozawa is running against Prime Minister Kan in the 14 September DPJ presidential election. Support for Kan appears to be at best of the lesser of two evils variety, but the case against Ozawa remains strong as ever. I refuse to believe that a majority of the 411 Diet members will of their own volition vote for a candidate that is disapproved by an overwhelming majority in opinion polls—by contrast, although the Kan cabinet is beset by negative ratings, a healthy majority still wants to give Prime Minister Kan a second chance—and withstand the heavy and constant media beating that will follow an Ozawa victory. The rookies in particular have to worry about 2013. However, roughly one third of the voters will be cast by local party members and assemblymen, an factor that had largely remained off the radar till now. But from here on, they will matter, for two reasons. First and most obviously, they can be the deciding factor in a close Diet membership vote. Second, they can influence their local Diet members in their voting, especially in the case of fence-sitting parliamentarians. It has been unusual but by no means rare in party presidential elections for Diet members to explicitly vote according to the wishes of their local chapters, and broader if more subtle interactions must also happen. It would be surprising if similar thing did not happen in the upcoming DPJ election. Third, the national voting trends among the eligible supporters and assemblymen are likely to affect the overall voting behavior of the Diet members. Remember that Junichiro Koizumi’s surprise local victories in the 2001 LDP election over overwhelming favorite Ryutaro Hashimoto precipitated a landslide victory in the Diet member vote. True, the DPJ local votes will not be counted until the Diet members have voted, precisely to avoid such a happenstance. However, nothing will stop the national media to sic their local bureaus to provide day-to-day coverage on the intentions of the DPJ voters in the provinces. Expect everyone to know the approximate outcome of the local voting before the Diet members vote in Tokyo on 14 September.
Now most people seem to believe that Ozawa has something of an edge out there, given his formidable political machine and its extensive outreach into the provinces, including plenty of handholding, sewage cover-stomping, and rice paddy-wading on behalf of associate and/or political-newbie candidates past—a lot of political chits to redeem. However, the local eligibles in turn talk to the rest of the locals. And they will all access the media, and be influenced accordingly. It’s a dynamic process, is all I can say right now. I expect the majority to be what I consider to be rational and take the path of least public resistance, which is to reelect Kan, but what do I know?
Whatever the outcome, the election will most likely draw an indelible and permanent line between the pro- and anti-Ozawa forces, with the rest of the DPJ getting back up and sitting, uneasily, on the fence. I expect a Kan victory to be somewhat more reassuring to the markets, largely because of main street support for continuity and rejection of Ozawa’s likely revival of the more costly elements of the 2009 election manifesto. Either way, the two sides will shake hands and pretend to make up, and the winner will make the minimum concessions on cabinet, subcabinet, and political assignments to keep the other side from bolting. (Ozawa won’t want to, but that must be the minimal price of Hatoyama’s support.) However, I doubt that unity will be long-lived. The widening political fissures will threaten to erupt at moments of political adversity, which will surely come, on the economy, Okinawa, and any number of those incidents expected or not of varying consequences that cumulatively sap the political capital of administrations or even manage somehow to morph into major political crises on their own. In other words, schism is in the air, and none of the significant opposition parties, not the LDP, certainly not Your Party (I still fail to understand the logic behind expectations that it would join hands with the DPJ and kill its own brand before it even graduates the phenom stage), not even the New Komeito, the only meaningful party that, through its near-captive constituency, could withstand the curse of an alliance with what is likely than not to be a deeply unpopular DPJ. It looks increasingly as if the moment realignment has drawn closer, if still beyond the horizon—that is a long-term plus for governance in Japan. From that perspective, a Kan victory followed by an Ozawa prosecution would actually be a negative in that it would postpone the day of reckoning and more coherent policymaking.