Saturday, November 03, 2007

So That's Why Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ozawa Took So Long. Here Are Some Thoughts about the Political Implications

I'd wondered why Yasuo Fukuda and Ichiro Ozawa were taking so long. It turns out that they had plenty to talk about. For the Prime Minister Fukuda went well beyond offers of a vague promise to work together and the "refueling extension in exchange for favorable consideration of permanent legislation for overseas projection of the Sself-Defense Force" deal of my daydreams, and actually proposed an LDP+New Komeitō+DPJ Grand Coalition. Even more surprisingly - and this is surely why they huddled all afternoon and into the early evening - Mr. Ozawa agreed to take the Grand Coalition proposal back to the DPJ leadership for consideration, and it was only after his colleagues overwhelmingly rejected it in what must have been a tempestuous meeting that he phoned Mr. Fukuda and informed him that the proposal could not be accepted. Mr. Ozawa, according to Yomikuri, also had been favorably disposed to a temporary extension of the refueling activities while a more permanent, overall solution for the JSDF would be worked out.

That Mr. Fukuda broached a Grand Coalition - if not its timing - is understandable, given his collaborative instincts and his administration's need to get things done. What is far more surprising was Mr. Ozawa's willingness to consider it. Did he allow his genius for the political game to be overwhelmed by his love of statecraft? Did the awareness of mortality that comes from his well-advertised health problems attract him to an ill-advised deal? Or is he at heart still the rightful heir of the 1955 status quo? These and other questions will be mulled over and over again, as biographers and historians revisit this chapter in Ichiro Ozawa's many-storied life.

The major dailies have lined up more or less predictably, from get a room now now at Yomiuri to cut a deal on the policies first at Sankei to what a dumb idea at Mainichi to how dare they collude to rob the public of an opportunity for regime change at Asahi. But the media lineup mirrors their respective positions on the refueling operations and preferences for regime change, and little else, which highlights the following point:

On the policy front, overseas deployment of the JSDF including the suspended refueling operations appeared to have been the main, if not sole, subject of the Fukuda-Ozawa talks. The JSDF package was also at the heart of the political game for a Grand Coalition. Domestic policy concerns such as fiscal reform and the funding of the public pension system appear to have figured in the abstract only, in the sense that the public would be the ones to suffer from the legislative deadlock a the result of a political standoff.

This in turn is a reflection of the political reality that the policy divide between the LDP and DPJ owes more to tactical considerations than to genuine differences in political, social and economic philosophies. In fact, the internal policy differences and the resultant tensions in each party (more so in the DPJ due to its ideologically and politically disparate origins) are far wider, relatively speaking, than the gap between the two parties.

Such internal contradictions, to borrow an old Marxist term, fed by the internal discordance that has been exacerbated by the Grand Coalition proposal within each party, the ruling coalition, and the opposition respectively, will lead some to renew speculations over a Grand Realignment along more ideologically compatible lines. And a tradition of strong party discipline (unlike the US; witness the fate of LDP Post Office privatization rebels) that continues to cause discomfort for dissidents will lend force to such calls.

But I have come to believe that such a turn of events is highly unlikely. Japanese politicians are like those old edge-notched cards; you shake out a different set for every different hole, and it is hard to find two sets of holes sufficient to gather all or most of the cards into two more or less neat piles. And without willing subjection to coherent, discrete, and distinctive sets of policy objectives and the means to achieve them that go beyond the politically expedient, incumbency and vested interests in the status quo will prevail.

This argument, if true, means that the Japanese electorate does not have a substantive policy choice. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if the policy parameters within which the political game is being played are appropriate to the circumstances, Japan could do much worse than to evolve a two-party system whose real purpose would be to keep the actors honest by the threat of removal from power. On the other hand, if perceptions shift and a consensus emerges that the conditions are such that radical changes to the status quo are required but on not much more, then public demand, if nothing else, will cause a reshuffling of the deck. Looking at the talks and the response thereto, my sense is that, despite the dissonance revealed and uncertainty caused by this unexpected overture and response, Japanese politics is still on course towards a status-quo bipolarity.

If you wanted to know what Asahi really wanted, you only had to read today's editorial. See the following paragraph:


The two parties had just recently collided this summer in the Upper House election, where the LDP-New Komeitō coalition lost, and the DPJ had leaped forward to become the largest party in the Upper House. Regime change would finally be at stake with the soon-to-come dissolution of the Lower House and [subsequent] general election. That is surely what most Japanese citizens had been thinking.
(my translation; the Asahi version should be available by tomorrow.)

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