Monday, March 09, 2009

METI Minister in the Hot Seat; The Good News-Bad News Story of the Weekend

News reports say that Toshihiro Nikai, in his second tour as METI Minister, has been singled out by the Public Prosecutors Office for special attention out of the rest of his LDP colleagues on the take from the Nishimatsu (alleged) dummies. This is obviously good news for the DPJ because it spreads the…manure around. Adding spice to the….okay, what’s particularly…delicious is the fact that Nikai is a sitting Cabinet member, which means that the Aso administration is taking a direct hit and that the Prime Minister’s judgment and leadership are yet again being called into question. Less obviously, I think that this story has extra legs because Nikai’s relationship with one of the main Nishimatsu figures goes all the way back to his days as Wakayama Prefecture assemblyman—an heirloom that he inherited from his father. In other words, other things being equal, there is a greater likelihood of establishing a direct politician-donor link for Nikai than Ozawa. This is significant because the bar is high for the PPO when it comes to bringing indictments under the Political Finances Regulation Act against individual politicians for acts committed by their political finances management organizations and making them stick.* The DPJ won’t look any better, but the LDP will look worse, which is almost as good for escaping the hungry bear.

Nikai’s plight is actually bad news for Ozawa, though, if he really wants to stay on—something that I’m not completely convinced is the case. A Nikai resignation will touch off media pressure on Ozawa to follow suit, and “we’re no worse than the LDP” is not good, as an excuse or a campaign slogan. Now a Cabinet member, who serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, is far easier to get rid of than a party president, who can in principle stay on if he//she so desires short of being kicked out by an intra-party majority. Moreover, taking leave from the Cabinet, like so many of his LDP colleagues have done in recent administrations alone, is personally less damaging as political careers go. So Nikai is much more likely to take leave, which will ratchet up media (and hence voter) pressure on Ozawa. If I knew game theory, I’d probably be saying that the odds of the DPJ rank-and-file not in thrall to Ozawa will anticipate such an LDP move and raise objections to Ozawa’s continued stewardship have improved as well. In fact, I think that there is now a good chance, depending very much on how the criminal investigations unfold, that both Nikai and Ozawa will end up resigning by the end of the month, allowing the latter to concentrate on the experientially more comfortable and physically less taxing role of political strategist/fixer extraordinaire. Needless to say, that would not be good for the Prime Minister, whose LDP support base has always been tenuous and is increasingly so.

* A politician is criminally liable for acts committed by the chief financial officer of his/her political finances management organization only if he has failed to exercise due diligence in the appointment and oversight of that officer. Japanese jurisprudence places the burden of proof on this judgment call squarely on the shoulders of the prosecution. A direct link is easier to make a call on the evidence and conviction carries far greater penalties—potential jail time, if most likely suspended, and suspension of the right to stand for election, which leads to automatic disqualification for elected officials—than mere lack of due diligence, for which there are provisions only for a fine and the suspension of political rights is at the discretion of the courts.

I’ll post on the weekend opinion polls later if I have the time. Suffice to say that they look bad for Ozawa, and that the DPJ and LDP have traded a few percentage points of support between them. The Aso administration shows a slight improvement as well. Given the circumstances, this all looks like a case of dead cats bouncing on the part of the ins. The media will seize on this though to put more pressure on Ozawa, who in turn is likely to dig in. Which brings the story back to the first point; that is, the fate of the METI Minister. The probably indictment two weeks later is likely to be the inflection point.


Anonymous said...

"'we’re no worse than the LDP is not good, as an excuse or a campaign slogan"

But wasn't that basically the DPJ's campaign slogan last time around? "Give us a chance to run things, because, well, we're not the LDP!"

They managed to break the LDP's hold on the Upper House with that line (OK, just barely, but still), so why change what works? Besides, actually formulating a policy to show why you are different form the other guys and presenting it to voters is a lot of hard work.

Although since Ozawa's "policies" are basically 1970's LDP policies, you would think it wouldn't be too hard to point them out to people...

Jun Okumura said...

LB: There’s a measure of truth to what you say, but textbook socialism and absolute pacifism are dead, so it’s difficult for the DPJ to create sharp, ideological separation between the LDP. And how different is that from most mature liberal democracies? Have pity on the poor boys (and girls).

Having said that, the 2007 DPJ manifesto (and DPJ policies before that) did have some attractive ideas in it, the pension system reform proposal (of which even Taro Aso had something good to say about) being one prominent example. Unfortunately in my view for the Japanese public, the DPJ is currently being pulled in a different—and what I believe to be a reactionary—direction due to its Upper House reliance on the People’s New Party and the rump wing of the Socialists, both 1955-regime throwbacks. That must be part of what you see as the DPJ’s tacking towards “basically 1970's LDP policies”. Looking at the anemic, lesser-of-two-evils public opinion poll numbers for the DPJ, I can’t help but think that the media and the public notice this and are responding accordingly. We may be lazy, but not that stupid.