Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The DPJ: Whose Party Is It Anyway?

Ichiro Ozawa is already strongly positioned in the Upper House wing of the DPJ by virtue of the 2007 election victory over the LDP-New Komeito coalition. Add to that his likely dominance over the Lower House as the result of the upcoming general election and the post-election DPJ will have a Dark Overlord that will rival if not eclipse Kakuei Tanaka, Ozawa’s mentor and role model, at the peak of his political power. Let me explain.

As the Koizumi Kids phenomenon shows, rookie Diet members tend to gravitate toward the leadership under which they are elected. Similarly, Ozawa’s group swelled its ranks when the DPJ took 60 out of 121 seats up for grabs in the 2007 Upper House election. Although lingering resentment towards Katsuya Okada over his past expressions of desire for Upper House reform played a major role in delivering the bulk of the Upper House vote to Hatoyama, Ozawa’s influence over their ranks must also have figured substantially in the outcome. The upcoming Lower House election is likely to have an even more dramatic effect on Ozawa’s power, since all 480 seats will be up for election—unlike the Upper House, which turns over only half its members every three years. The 2007 election produced a net gain of 28 DPJ Diet members. But in the upcoming election, a simple majority—something well within the DPJ’s reach—will produce a net gain of 128 DPJ Diet members.

Significantly, Ozawa has exercised near-dictatorial powers in selecting, monitoring, and even coaching the candidates; in the process overshadowing the customary role of the Director-General—Hatoyama!—who is supposed to manage party operations on a day-to-day basis. If anything, his “demotion” to Senior Acting President will enhance his influence over the candidates, since he will not be distracted by anything as trivial as the need to show up for Diet sessions and respond to pesky reporters and instead will be able to devote his full attention to the electoral process—over which he explicitly retains full control*. Thus it is likely that Ozawa will emerge from the upcoming election with behind-the-scenes political might whose likes we have not seen since his mentor Kakuei Tanaka.

All this does not necessarily bode ill for a Hatoyama administration. Remember that Yasuhiro Nakasone, who led one of the most long-serving and effective post-WW II administrations, was also widely regarded as a Tanaka hand puppet when he became Prime Minister. And there is another eerie, if oddly hopeful, parallel in the relative disinterest in statecraft, a trait shared by the two on the part of both Dark Overlords. We are likely to see whether or not the conciliatory and inclusive Yukio Hatoyama has the vision and determination to likewise measure up to his distant predecessor.

* This begs the question: What is the new Director-General—Okada!—supposed to do?

As a final point, the shadow of the Overlord is obviously not helpful to the DPJ as far as the overall outcome of the election is concerned. I believe that this increases the likelihood of a need for a coalition partner beyond or in lieu of its more or less formal odd-bedfellows alliance with the People’s New Party (old-school-LDP) and the Social Democrats (old school Socialists), while simultaneously complicating any outreach to the LDP reformist wing—the source of the most likely candidates for a post-election breakaway. I’ll try to take this matter up in some detail in another post.


Jan Moren said...

What is the new Director-General—Okada!—supposed to do?Well, generally direct, I suppose. Stand here, put that there, sing into this, go there with that - I'm sure he'll have a good time.

More seriously, it seems to be the kind of malleable position that depends largely on the occupant to make something out of it. See it as a test: if he can manage to leverage the position into a power platform and use it to become leader after Hatoyama then good for him. If he can't, and sinks into unheralded obscurity, then no loss; he wouldn't have had the political skills to make full use of a party presidency anyhow.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: A party secretary-general’s role is usually well defined. An SG is supposed to run the party on a day-to-day basis. That includes overseeing the election process, vetting the candidates, etc. That’s why Hatoyama got ragged as SG by the press because it believed—erroneously, according to Hatoyama—that Ozawa didn’t share with him the results of a crucial, pre-Nishimatsu, DPJ-commissioned poll that showed the DPJ destroying the LDP.

LB said...

Great - just what we need. Ozawa is old-school LDP. Seriously old-school. The LDP has, somewhat, moved on in more-or-less the right direction since Ozawa took his ball and went to play elsewhere (and then when those folks didn't listen to him, he took his ball and left again... and again... and again...). Granted, most of the redirection of the LDP happened under Koizumi, and there has been a lot of backlash from old farts who don't like change and want to turn the clock back - old farts exactly like Ozawa, only less stuck in the past than him.This is why I no longer believe the DPJ is any sort of real alternative to the LDP. They are an alternative, true, in that they are not (on paper) actually the LDP, but would a DPJ victory lead to any meaningful changes? Very doubtful.

The DPJ goes through the motions of being progressive, but I personally think a lot of that is just to keep the ex-Socialists in the party from bolting, and to keep the current (otherwise completely irrelevant) dinosaurs of the JCP and SDP in the "coalition" the DPJ still needs to truly control the upper house.

If Ozawa truly does engineer a massive DPJ victory, and you are right that most of the freshmen will feel behooven to him, this may solve the DPJ's multiple-personality disorder and actually make it a cohesive party with a solid platform that most members supprted. But I fear it would be the platform of the LDP of our childhood - "back to the future".

Jun Okumura said...

LB: You raise several interesting points. Let me offer my own comments in the form of a new post.

Bryce said...

Not sure I agree with you that Ozawa has little interest in statecraft. He was and always has been fairly insistent on crafting Japan's foreign policy around an internationalist agenda. Maybe that's not a position that will enhance Japan's status as some kind of "Great Power" - whatever that means - but it is a more realistic assessment of what Japan can actually do than Abe's strange vision of a beautiful country.

Jun Okumura said...

Bryce: We’ll probably have to agree to disagree there. For my money, Ozawa’s position on foreign policy is less a coherent set of objectives and means and more an instinctive recoil against what he sees as a blind obedience to the prevailing policies of the United States. This is a common sentiment that runs the gamut of right-wing nativists to left-wing pacifists and does have a visceral appeal that Abe’s disembodied vision never did.

This, incidentally, explains the unholy yakuza/right-wing/left-wing coalition during the 1960 anti-Mutual Security Treaty uprising.