Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Two Events to Watch Out for: Highway Toll Diet SmackDown and Strike Two for Ozawa

Really no time to elaborate, so let me put down a couple of markers on the DPJ. First, it’s become a matter of course that someone puts his foot down and the prime minister will appear to yield, only to appear to pull back again when someone else complains. This makes the first person unhappy, and the two sides (or more on occasion) goes back and forth with the befuddled prime minister in between until whoever has the greater leverage on the prime minister or can get Ozawa behind himself gets his way. But Hatoyama sent the highway toll rumble between Ozawa and Maehara to a higher dimension when he deferred the resolution of the issue to deliberations in the Diet. He bought a few weeks of relative quiet for himself on the matter, but he’s formally taking the quarrel public. I think that this raises the stakes substantially. Hatoyama’s procedural move has the potential to split the DPJ down the line; as such, it’s the first of its kind.

The second is the decision by the Committee for Inquest of Prosecution—a name right out of a Kafka nightmare if you ask me—to recommend that Ozawa be prosecuted for the political financing irregularities after all. He had it coming, since the Public Prosecutors Office’s announcement that it would not move forward with criminal proceedings against Ozawa had all but begged for political cover in the event it failed in securing a guilty verdict against him. The PPO will reopen the investigation, then prosecute, or telegraph again its desires upon which the CIP will repeat its recommendation, with which the PPO will be “compelled” to prosecute. Note that it’s in the interests of the DPJ that Ozawa—and Ozawa alone—leaves the scene; the problem is, he’s likely to try to take his troops—up to 40-50 Diet members; talk of a third of the DPJ contingency vastly overestimates Ozawa’s sway over the 2007 (Upper House) and 2009 (Lower House) rookies—and leave the camp. Strike two will force his hand. Will he go quietly into the night? Or will he trash the place before his leaves?

The CIP worked far more quickly than I’d imagined, since I’d based my timeline assumptions on on the one two-strike precedent, the Fukuchiyama Line accident, where the CIP and PPO took years to finally bring the case against railway executives. In hindsight, it makes sense; Fukuchiyama involved reams of technical details of ther kind that Ozawa’s case does not have.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Death of the LDP? Maybe. But Don’t Hold Your Breath.

There’s plenty of media speculation about the future of the LDP, and none of it is positive. With good reason too, what with some of its most media-friendly Diet members flaking off against the backdrop of a lackluster leadership utterly unable to cash in on the difficulties that the coalition government and the DPJ have been running into. I’ve been engaging in idle speculation about the eventual fall of the LDP myself but I don’t have anything useful in that direction to offer—I say idle and nothing useful because I cannot yet put the event on any kind of a timeline with any degree of confidence; mountains will crumble or disappear into the sea, heck, the whole universe is going to stop one day, a broken clock...—so why not indulge myself in a little counterintuitive thinking and try to amuse you by making a case for the LDP saving match point for now?

What touched off the latest flurry of glee/alarm/speculation was the defection of Yoichi Masuzoe, the public’s hands-down favorite over Seiji Maehara, Katsuya Okada, Nobuteru Ishihara, etc., etc. as the politician of choice to join five other Upper House members in in a de facto takeover of the Kaikaku Kurabu (Japan Renaissance Party) and renaming it the Shinto Kaikaku (New Party Renaissance?) as a platform for his political ambitions. The Masuzoe effect is considerable, as the Nikkei-TV Tokyo 23-25 national poll gave SK/KK a remarkable 7% in voter intent in the July Upper House election (DPJ 20%, LDP 14%, Your Party 11%, SK/KK 7%, Komeito 4%, JCP 3%, Stand Up Japan 2%, SDP 1%, PNP 0%, New Party Nippon 0%, others (the Happy Science folks?) 2%, undecided 23%, don’t know/won’t tell 12%). If this is reflected in the actual voting for the proportional seats, the SK/KK will take five out of the 48 proportional seats at stake. With Masuzoe’s seat, it will have six seats, enough to cross the five-member threshold for parliamentary privileges as a legitimate political party. Who knows, it could very well pick up another seat or two in the larger Kanto or Kansai multimember districts.

Now at this point, those of you who have been paying attention to the numbers will be wondering, Masuzoe goes into the election with six seats, emerges with six—seven, eight max and that’s supposed to be a big deal? Yes, it is, and that’s why Masuzoe is not such a big deal after all. And the reason for this can be compressed into the briefest of bios for Masuzoe’s five compadres:
Hideo Watanabe (75): head of the old Kaikaku Kurabu, elected to the UH in 2004 on the DPJ proportional ticket.
Hiroyuki Arai (51) elected to the UH in 2004 on the LDP proportional ticket.
Tetsuro Yano (63) elected to the UH in 2004 on the LDP proportional ticket, announced intent to retire (2009 December).
Masakatsu Koike (58) elected to the UH in 2004 on the LDP proportional ticket, failed to get LDP nomination to run in his home district in the upcoming election.
Toshio Yamauchi (63) elected to the UH in 2004 on the LDP Kagawa Prefecture ticket, announced intent to retire (2009 September).

For the record, Masuzoe is 61, and holds an Upper House seat and will be up for Upper House reelection (Lower House election?) in 2013.
In other words, Masuzoe is teaming up with a group of people whose terms expire in July and a) were not good enough to win locally the last time around but slipped through by way of the national showing of their respective parties, b) are retiring, or c) both. It is not surprising then, that none of his now-friends show sign of affinity to the reformist strain of Japanese politics that Masuzoe is identified with and derives public support from. In fact, the ringleader of the has-beens, Hideo Watanabe, is just as old school as Ichiro Ozawa and Shizuka Kamei, if not more so.

This begs the question: Why did Masuzoe enter into this marriage of pure convenience, and to boot a nuptial with the bride in the Russia joke—but I digress—in the first place? To ask the question is to answer it: because nobody did. Masuzoe by all accounts is the smartest Diet member in all of DPJ but has no personal following whatsoever. The lack of close-up personal charm, the inability to manage up or down, is a charge that apparently has dogged him since his earliest years as a brilliant assistant professor of political science at Tokyo University. So if you’re a middle-of-the-road reform-minded political wannabie and you’ve been rejected by the LDP/DPJ as a candidate in the upcoming Upper House election, who are you going to hitch your wagon to, the SK/KK aka New Party Masuzoe (reportedly the first choice for the new party’s nomenclature), or the more youthful Your Party, with an identity beyond a single, media-friendly individual?

According to the poll, Masuzoe’s defection is paralleled by the LDP’s 2 percentage-point drop (22%-20%) in voter intent. It’s more or less what you’d expect from the rock-bottom LDP, and far lower than the SK/SS surge from virtually nil to 7%. At the same time, the DPJ fell from 33% to 27%. That raises the suspicion that Masuzoe’s defection from the LDP ate into the DPJ’s support from the independent floater voters, and also limited the Your Party’s upside there. As for Kaoru Yosano’s (Takeo Hiranuma’s, actually)—Stand Up Guys, it’s barely treading water.

If there’s a common thread tying Masuzoe, (Yoshimi) Watanabe, Yosano, and (Kunio) Hatoyama (already ripe for one of those vehicles for former B-list celebrities) together other than the relatively favorable media coverage that they have attracted—Hatoyama’s is more mixed than that of the others—it’s the fact that they are political loners. None of them built up a personal following while he were with the LDP. What makes them think that they can do so now? Of these, Watanabe is better positioned, as he is only of the Your Party band of media-friendly, relatively youthful brothers, ex-LDP, ex-DPJ, and independent, the team with the biggest upside.

It could do badly in the Upper House election and would still be the second largest party there by a wide margin. And it will also have 119 seats in the Lower House—knock on wood if you’re an LDP supporter—for another three years. And the LDP still has a few attractive faces to turn to. It would be foolish to count them out before they are down and really out.

Now at this point, ideally, I’d like to turn to the Maehara-Ozawa war and how that could bring an end to the DPJ as we know it, or the Ozayama regime at least. But I’m out of time.

Promise to respond to pending comments. But not now. Sorry.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Stand-Up Guys

The media have picked up on the oddness of hard-line conservative Takeo Hiranuma and staunch centrist Kaoru Yosano joining hands to form Stand Up Japan. But catholicity was what the LDP was all about*, and these two folks are known for their ability to get along, so there’s really nothing to get excited about. Besides, they are proclaiming themselves friends (sort of) of the LDP. But that doesn't look appropriate for the next stage in political realignment, which looks increasingly sooner rather than later.

Then there’s the other problem: These guys are old. Yosano is 71, and Hiranuma is 70. And the other are in descending order: 72 (Yoshio Nakagawa, House of Councilors), 68 (Hiroyuki Sonoda, House of Representatives), and 67 (Takao Fujii, House of Councilors). Count their days in full and they probably average out to 70, the mandatory retirement age for…the Japanese Supreme Court. Even if you happened to be one of the 2006 Post Office reform expellees whom Hiranuma helped rejoin the LDP, you wouldn’t want to join the Space Cowboys on this ride**. And they aren’t.

I do expect them to pick up a few seats in the July HoC general election though. I haven’t done the math, but I’m sure that the core supporters of the five Diet members plus whatever votes the candidates can muster on their own will be enough to get a share of the proportional seats. The Stand Ups are not going to be the media’s darlings of election 2010—that looks like the Your Party’s role—so I expect them to choose mainly Post Office reform expellees who failed to win seats in the 2006 election and local politicians, people who bring their own support base.
*To be fair, the reincarnation of the DPJ is also quite inclusive, the Hatoyama administration even more so. And going back in time, things didn’t get weirder than the Murayama Cohabitation.

**And christening the group as Stand Up Japan is the increasingly lame-duck, 77 years old Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. Incidentally, Ishihara appears to agree with Yasuo Tanaka of Shinto Nippon (New Party Japan) in thinking that inverted names are cool, e.g. Shuto Daigaku Tokyo, (Tokyo Metropolitan University). Inversion does pack a punch in Japanese, but in this case has the feel of graying pols dying their hair. I think that Ishihara’s naming powers peaked at the subway Ōedo-sen. Now that’s a name with both historical and contemporary resonance.

Speaking of the name, do a google search in Japanese and the results begin with what appear to be mostly unkind blog posts, some of them using a pun not fit for a family-oriented blog. That is also an inauspicious sign.