Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Meaning of Habatsu

There must be hundreds of books written about the LDP, all of which surely have something to say about the habatsu, the party factions, for which it is justly famous. This post is for people who are too busy to read any of them, written by someone who is too lazy to.

You have been forewarned.

The 1993-94 electoral reforms that put first-past-the-post, single seat districts at the heart of the Lower House electoral system have steadily eroded the power of habastsu, the political factions in the LDP. The state subsidies to political parties, also part of the 1993-94 reforms, loosened the faction leaders’ financial grip over the rank-and-file. So are we going to see, as some people expect, a shift from the faction politics based on personal loyalty toward more policy- and ideology-consistent alliances, eventually leading to a realignment of the major parties? Not so fast.

Once upon a time, factions as a rule served as the vehicle for the political ambitions of their chiefs. No longer. The three most recent Prime Ministers have not been faction chiefs*, and the future does not look too promising for faction chiefs either. Of the current nine chiefs, only Sadakazu Tanigaki and Tarō Asō have run for the presidency of the LDP and by extension the Prime Ministership**, and Mr. Tanigaki will merge his micro-faction into the larger Koga faction later this year and give up his top faction role at least partly to enhance his chances for the top LDP job (but more on that later). And Nobutaka Machimura is the only other faction leader that has a credible shot at the LDP Presidency. In fact, faction leaders are increasingly looking like the political version of the stereotypical salaryman-manager presidents of Japanese companies.

The deterioration of the factions has been evident in the behavior of the individual Diet members. More LDP Diet members elect to stay out of factions and work as free agents. And the ones that remain are increasingly able to marching to their own music, as some of them openly defy the wishes of their respective faction leadership to vote for the party presidential candidate of their own choosing. The power of the faction leaders to punish the deviants is limited. I’ve already mentioned the money angle; and the party leadership has wrested much of the control over the selection of party candidates for Diet seats, and Junichirō Koizumi showed that a Prime Minister could get away with disregarding the wishes of faction chiefs and the imperatives of seniority in picking Cabinet members.

But the trend appears to have peaked with the election of 83 new Diet members, the so-called Koizumi Kids, in the 2005 election, the vast majority coming in as independents. Since then their ranks have been steadily depleted by defection, as it were, to one faction or other, until today, only 23 Lower House rookies remain as independent operators.

It’s not just rookies either. Nobuteru Ishihara, the hawkish son of Shintarō Ishihara and friend of Shinzō Abe, with two Cabinet appointments and a Big Three party post under his belt at the callow age of 50, fell in line under Taku Yamazaki, the Mother of All Doves, only last December. Kunio Hatoyama, of the Hatoyama clan, a 10-term Lower House member currently on his third (or fourth, depending on how you count) Cabinet appointment, joined the Tsushima faction, also last year. So what gives?

In fact, there are still some very good reasons for factions to prevail.

One good reason: Because it’s there. That’s the way they’ve conducted business. Old habits are hard to break. Institutional change, the informal ones at least, comes slowly. In the meantime, they’re a saving on transaction costs. Example: Imagine you’re a Prime Minister and you or your trusted deputies have to figure out how to choose all those political appointees - the Senior Vice-Ministers and Vice Ministers. You can’t expect to know (in the case of the Lower House) all the third- and second-termers well enough to make the right appointments. Over the long-run, administrations may stop treating these jobs as virtual internships and use them to better immediate effect, relegating, not incidentally, the rest of the rank-and-file Diet members to pure backbenchers. Until that happens though - I think it will be a long time in coming, if ever - the Prime Minister and his closest associates must have some viable means of allocating those posts.

Rookies have very good reasons of their own to join factions. A faction is a ready-made network to plug into, a good place to learn the ropes, find mentors, receive introductions***. There’s far less money available compared to the old days, but unless you are independently very wealthy, every million yen in political funds counts. And when a rookie’s first crack at reelection comes around, it’s good to have some nationally recognized figures come around to put in a good word with your constituents. And the bigger the faction, the greater the firepower; and vice versa. So I do not think that it is a coincidence that the Machimura faction has grown over its long hold on the Prime Minister’s seat to become the largest faction in the LDP. Tsutomu Takebe, who ran the party organization under Prime Minister Koizumi, has tried to keep the flame of independence alive by providing venues for training newbies. At least in the short-run, he is fighting a rearguard action.

As for better-established members, they will have accumulated a substantial amount of political capital within their factions. It doesn’t make political sense to throw that away and start anew as independents. Thus, once a faction member, (usually) always a member. Mr. Hatoyama is not really an exception to this rule. He has been in and out of the LDP, coming back again to stay in 2000. He joined the Tsushima faction, where he started out his political career when it was the almighty Tanaka faction****.

For those harboring ambitions for the top office, faction membership is highly helpful, perhaps essential. To file to run for the LDP Presidency, you need the signatures of at least 20 Diet members. A convenient place to start would be the member of your faction, where the smallest micro-faction has more than a baker’s dozen as a starter’s pack. A large faction would be even more convenient for aspirants. Mr. Tanigaki and Makoto Koga, the head of much larger Koga faction, have a natural affinity as foreign policy and history issue doves. But the Koga faction’s lack of a proximate candidate for the Prime Minister’s job must have figured just as importantly in the equation.

Kaoru Yasano, the affable policy wonk and behind-the-scenes operator, has seen much success as a troubleshooter and behind-the-scenes mediator. Most recently, he has been whispered as a potential successor to Prime Minister Koizumi, or replacement for Prime Minister Abe, but nothing really came of a that. Mr. Ishihara must have had this precedent in addition to his own experience in mind***** when he decided to fall in with his ideological and operational opposite, Mr. Yamazaki. It is telling that the Yamazaki faction had no viable for Prime Minister.

Policies and ideologies cut across faction lines; Mr. Ishihara alone is proof of that. However, Diet members do not fall into neat groups holding common positions on all or most of the important issues of the day******. This neccessitates the proliferation of an endless string of semi-permanent caucuses, many of them cutting across party lines. At the other end, no single issue is sufficiently powerful and divisive enough to force a realignment that severs permanently the communal relationships and the practical conveniences of the factions.

Thus, for the foreseeable future, factions should continue to thrive in the LDP. An important corollary of this conjecture is that a political realignment of the two major parties is not in the cards either.

Okay… not quite good enough, but I think I got it out of my system. And life is so short…

* Koizumi Junichirō, Shinzō Abe and Yasuo Fukuda all hailed from the Seiwakai. Mr. Koizumi was nominally the faction head while Yoshirō Mori, the faction head took him turn before him as Prime Minister.

** Yōhei Kōno, the current President of the Lower House, is the only LDP President in its 53-year history never to serve as Prime Minister.

*** This must have been particularly important for the Koizumi kids, since so many of them had little or no political experience or ties to their local political communities.

**** Mr. Hatoyama surely still harbors ambitions to be Prime Minister. Still only 59-years old, he is a 10-term Diet member with a pedigree better than Mr. Fukuda’s and at least as good as Mr. Abe’s. He displayed his ambitions when he tried but failed to stand for the election of the LDP President in 2006. I suspect that this experience was a strong motivation to go to the Tsushima faction, which conveniently does not have ready Prime Minister candidate. Tsushima faction member Fukushirō Nukaga has been seen my many as a potential candidate, but when he tried to stand in 2007, he had to give up because he could not even secure the support of his own faction.

***** I suspect that similar considerations entered into Mr. Hatoyama’s decision, but I couldn’t be sure about it, so I put it in footnote****.

****** To give an example, too many Western commentators regularly refer to Mr. Koizumi as a right-wing politician, a nationalist, because he antagonized the Chinese by insisting on going to Yasukuni Shrine, and also supported President Bush on the war in Iraq. To realize that those people slide beyond shaggy conventional wisdom into the realm of urban legend, you only have to look at his position on the Class A War Criminals and other hot-button history issues, as well as his support for MOF in holding the line against defense spending. And I haven’t even talked about the imperial succession. And North Korea. I’ll try to expand this point into a full post one of these days.

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