Friday, August 08, 2008

Runoff for DPJ Leadership Election? The LDP Wishes

First, it was Katsuya Okada. Now, another ex-DPJ leader, Seiji Maehara, has declined to run for the DPJ presidency when Ichiro Ozawa’s current term expires in September. Since the other ex-leaders Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan have set aside their differences in order to take down the LDP-Komeito coalition in the next Lower House election, this leaves Yoshihiko Noda with his own nineteen-member Let All the Flowers Bloom Association as the only significant DPJ figure left who has not abandoned the thought.

Nobody expects Mr. Ozawa to be unseated. In fact, it is unlikely that anyone outside of Mr. Noda’s group and We Will Rise above the Clouds Association with 38-members (seven of them also belong to LAFBA) will cast a vote for a pretender to the throne. The logic behind a contested election despite such bleak prospects for a challenger* is that a healthy debate over the policy manifest for the upcoming election can only strengthen party unity and the campaign platform. Reelection by acclaim would rob the party of the invigorating effects of the runoff.

Don’t believe a single word of that.

It is telling that the calls for a contested election are coming from Mr. Ozawa’s opponents. An open debate would only serve to rehash the fragile political compromise that has papered over fundamental differences with regard to the need to raise the consumption tax rate for a 100%-subsidized basic pension plan and the desirability of overseas commitments for the Self-Defense Force. Moreover, it is likely to unleash the barely-disguised animosity between the anti-Ozawa crowd—witness, for example, Yukio Edano’s near-perpetual rage against the old-school politician—on one side and his diehard supporters and fellow travelers on the other. The LDP will scour the records of the proceedings for material to throw at the DPJ in a negative campaign come election time. Better, then, to maintain the façade of party unity, at least until the final polls are in for the main event, no later than September 2009.

An added point is that Mr. Ozawa is at best a mediocre debater, in demeanor and substance, and his obvious dislike of the limelight is well-known, to the point where a reporter was recently moved to ask him whether he really intended to serve if the DPJ won. The contrast in a public face-off with, say, the loquacious Mr. Noda would not reflect well on the party leader.

This last point reminds me of a related issue with regard to the Lower House election itself. The secretive, taciturn Mr. Ozawa is a stark contrast in style not only to the goofily pleasant Prime Minister Fukuda, but also to the congenial, loquacious-to-a-fault Taro Aso, and it shows in the polls. The latest Fuji TV Metropolitan Tokyo area poll taken on August 3 showed Mr. Aso leading Mr. Ozawa 29.2% to 12.4% as the preferred successor to Mr. Fukuda. Now this does not mean that the LDP will be replacing Mr. Fukuda with Mr. Aso any time soon. But it is important to note that at the hustings nationwide, it is Mr. Aso who will be the face of the LDP in lieu of the Prime Minister, who will be confined—perhaps a little too conveniently—to Tokyo for official business. The outcome of a Sir Foot-in-Mouth vs. Mr. Uncongeniality matchup is by no means foreordained, but it will nevertheless behoove the DPJ to avoid putting Mr. Ozawa front and center of the electoral fight.

The obvious corollary of this is that the LDP should do its best to make Mr. Ozawa the issue. The LDP cannot run on the coalition’s record; it cannot run on its program either. And it cannot run against itself, as it did in 2005 under Prime Minister Koizumi. The only option left is to run against the opposition, whose greatest strength and weakness is Mr. Ozawa. So look forward to plenty of negative campaigning, much of it personal. But that is the subject for a separate post.

* The DPJ has 219 Diet members, with two vote each. Official Diet candidates who are not Diet members have one each. Supporters and rank-and-file party members cast 100 votes; local assemblymen also have 100 votes. This brings the toal number of votes that can be cast to 638 plus the number of official candidates that have been selected by the time of the party election.

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