Monday, July 16, 2012

Very Briefly, on Polls, and Unsolicited Advice for Fellow High School Alumnus

Several media polls have been coming out over the weekend. Support for the LDP? 16.4% (sankei) and 14% (Yomiuri). The DPJ received 13.0% (Sankei)and 15% (Yomiuri). The only bright spot for the two parties running neck and neck—or crawling butt and butt if you prefer—is that the rest of the gang, including Ozawa’s spanking new People’s Life First Party, are mired in 1-3% microparty purgatory. (Komeito, as usual, underpolls, but its upside has a definite ceiling upside.) All that meant, however, that “none of the above” reached a whopping 57% (and another 3% not giving an answer).

Two words: Toru Hashimoto. It only takes one view, front-to-end, of one of his U-Stream press conferences to understand his grip on the reporters covering him. Takashi Kawamura doesn’t really count; he’s a mediocre political talent that parlayed his flamboyant late-night, Sunday-morning TV appearances into a second life as Nagoya mayor, but his national aspirations have been their own limitation: naked ambition getting in the way of building up street cred in his day job. (His uneasy on-again, off-again alliance with the Aichi governor, who also has national aspirations, doesn’t help burnish his reputation either.) Governor Shintaro Ishihara continues to get significant press attention, but let’s put it this way: A bunch of septuagenarian might-have-beens trying to congregate around one of their own and their desire to whip the lazy, China-loving masses into shape isn’t going to attract a meaningful number of capable, well-heeled candidates when there are semi-credible alternatives.

This brings me back to Hashimoto. If the polls are to be believed, almost two-thirds of the Japanese electorate turns its lonely eyes to… except there is nothing to turn to, just yet, because there is no national party here for the national polls to list. That’s the catch. Hashimoto has several good reasons not to enter the fray just now, and one of those reasons is that he has no national movement to match his national following. He just got his political school going over the summer, presumably as a no-expensed-paid, nationwide search for political talent reminiscent of the scouting caravans and contests that have brought you most of Japanese pop circulating in East Asia and beyond. And speaking of expenses, he has made it clear that any candidate running under the Ishin banner will have to pay his/her own way. This means that if he wants to field a meaningful slate of candidates in an early snap election, he will have to rely on a motley crew of well-heeled amateurs, do-gooders running shoestring campaigns, or well-entrenched local powers looking to step up to the national stage. True, that’s where all political movements begin, but the risks of mishaps and their consequences are magnified when you don’t have a core group of Diet members to give the gathering some leadership and stability. Moreover, on the demand side, all the political players from the DPJ and LDP to Your Party and Ishihara’s gathering are making goo-goo eyes at Hashimoto out of fear that he will blow any party out of the election waters that is not to his liking. Once he starts fielding a meaningful number of candidates of his own, that will change, particularly if he decides to challenge SMD incumbents. In the meantime, though, his potential competitors are happy to endorse his Osaka revolution, which will earn him more political brownie points down the line.

I think by now you’ve guessed where I’m going with this. Yes, I believe that Hashimoto should sit out the snap election, endorsing none of the players and agreeing to disagree on specific issues. Instead, he should look to the 2013 upper house election, where his national appeal will lead to a good showing in the national proportional voting, good for 48 of the 121 seats up for grabs* in that election, generating a reasonable expectations that this will lead to a decent showing in the remaining 73 SMDs. Can the DPJ and LDP avoid all this and bet the house in a 2013 double election? Well, yes, but postponement requires cohabitation of one kind or another—the DPJ and the LDP are the only two parties that can must a joint upper house majority—with which the media and the public, if you believe the polls, will be deeply disappointed. Besides, the coattail effect from a national campaign should have some value in the lower house as well in the case of an unlikely double election. And Hashimoto and his candidates will be better prepared to conduct a national campaign. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but I think that the DPJ and LDP will wind up picking the least of the many evils and come up with a snap election, most likely after their respective leadership elections.

Finally, there’s some thought given to the notion that Hashimoto’s popularity might wane with the passing of time. As Kevin Garnett said, anything is possible, but even moderately mayors and governors have remarkable staying power, extremely hard to dislodge unless there is a compelling local issue requiring unpopular decisions—like an unwanted garbage dump in the making—or criminal behavior—taking bribes, molesting a campaign volunteer, and so on—in the works. Hashimoto may be controversial, but so far has been able to stay on the good side of public opinion in Osaka. In short, the chances of a waiting game turning up the right political cards are slim, while the downside is pretty obvious.

So that’s my call, or bunch of calls. We’ll know if they’re any good in a few months. Back to work now.

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