Tuesday, September 02, 2008

New Komeito in the Equation: Some Structural Points, the Unpopularity of Ichiro Ozawa, and Unsolicited Advice for the DPJ

Most of my thoughts on the new Fukuda Cabinet and LDP leadership, and now the economic stimulus package, have been exhausted by a couple of for-clients-only reports, and I may have to do something on the latest dramatic turn of events—the announcement that Mr. Fukuda would be resigning as Prime Minister. (You can bet the house that Taro Aso will be taking over and calling a snap election after the extraordinary Diet session.) They help pay the bill, but definitely stand in the way of my bloglust in terms of both content and energy—I have only so many thoughts and so much time for Japanese politics. Here are a few technical thoughts, though, that will most likely not find their way into any moneymaking reports. Plus, some unsolicited advice for the DPJ.

The New Komeito, depending on actual turnout and incidental factors, draws 12-14% of the votes for the 180 proportional seats up for grabs in a Lower House election. The New Komeito throws the bulk of these mainly Sokagakkai voters to LDP candidates in most of the 300 single-seat districts, while the LDP throws its support to the New Komeito candidates in the remainder. It is more difficult to fine-tune this synergy in Upper House elections. This is a structural factor that works in favor of the ruling coalition in the Lower House. The higher representation of metropolitan areas in the Lower House presumably works against the more rurally-oriented LDP. It should be possible to get a better handle on these effects by a district-by-district analysis of voter behavior.

The one new structural factor in the upcoming Lower House election is the Communist Party’s decision to abandon its long-time policy of fielding candidates in every single-seat district. Any district where the Communist candidate is likely to gain less than the threshold of 10% of the effective votes for forfeiting the 3 million yen deposit can be subjected to this treatment. It is unclear how many of these disenfranchised Communist voters will throw their support to the DPJ candidates in single-seat districts, though a carefully designed public opinion poll should be able to tease out plausible guesstimates.

In sum, the LDP starts with somewhere around a 10 percentage-point handicap over the DPJ in a Lower House election, of which a few percentage points will be canceled out by voters who otherwise would be voting for Communist candidates.

A couple of other significant differences in contrast to the last Upper House election, which ended in a landslide victory for the DPJ, are the following:

Prime Minister Fukuda has been almost as unpopular as Prime Minister Abe was, but his antagonist Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ leader, is now as unpopular, if not more so. In fact, a recent Asahi telephone poll (12-13 August) had Mr. Fukuda beating Mr. Ozawa 37% to 28% head-to-head with 35% undecided as the one more fit to be Prime Minister. Taro Aso, Mr. poised to take over from Mr. Fukuda, has also significantly outpolled Mr. Ozawa in public opinion polls.

The bloom is off the DPJ phenomenon; the media are increasingly seeing its decision-making as being driven mainly by electoral considerations. This is affecting their reporting. Mr. Ozawa is being depicted as the face of this political drift.

So, if I'm right, if a Prime Minister Aso can keep his foot-in-mouth under control and his Cabinet choices—assuming he does a makeover—do a reasonably good job of staying scandal-free, an Ozawa-led DPJ will have a formidable job ahead to wrest control of the Lower House from the current ruling coalition by itself.

If I were advising the DPJ leadership, I would advise it to go easy on the New Komeito and stop going after Daisaku Ikeda*. After all, even if the DPJ wins the most seats in the Lower House election—quite possible if not probable—it will be likely that it will be able to form a government only with the help of the New Komeito. The DPJ’s relationship with the New Komeito is bad enough with Mr. Ozawa at the helm—the enmity goes back to the breakup of the New Progress Party and the events leading up to it. It doesn’t need nakedly political, strong-arm tactics that destroy any possibility of prying a post-election New Komeito away from the LDP’s clutches.

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