What if they had a debate…

Prime Minister Abe and DPJ President Ozawa had their long-anticipated head-to-head debate yesterday, reportedly the longest length of time ever in a Diet session without a direct clash between party leaders.

That according to a handy table provided in the print edition of the Asahi Shimbun, which indicates that the previous record was in 2002, when Prime Minister Koizumi and current DPJ Secretary General Hatoyama Yukio waited until 10 April to debate. Another table shows readers that compared to the Ozawa-Abe debate in November of last year, Ozawa bested Abe again in terms of time used, 28:43 to 16:05 (compared with 25:55 to 19:42 in November). A third chart shows that the time was divided between arguing about Abe’s “beautiful country” vision (about eighteen minutes), education problems (about seven minutes), regional decentralization (sixteen and half minutes), and the scandal regarding liver damage from drug poisoning (three minutes).

Having dissected the minutiae of the debate, however, one can then turn to the editorial page of Asahi — and Yomiuri — and find the usual complaints about how nothing of substance came out of the debate.

Wrote Asahi: “Although it seems that this debate [on Abe’s emphasis on the emperor system in his book] was becoming very interesting, Mr. Ozawa quickly turned to a different subject, and his half-baked finish was extremely disappointing.” But as if that wasn’t enough to anger the Asahi diehards, Ozawa also failed to take a sufficiently strong position on constitution reform: “Well, what do the DPJ and Ozawa, who has perhaps been an advocate of constitution reform for many years, think about the ‘postwar’ era? To begin with, what stance will they take against Abe’s manner of constitution revision? Will they approve? Will they oppose? Ozawa has kept this mostly to himself…Although this was question time, since Ozawa did not state his attitude on the fundamental hinge issue of constitution reform, this was meaningless.”

Yomiuri was also dissatisfied with the overall quality of the debate, noting that “it is extremely difficult to say” whether there were differences between Abe’s and Ozawa’s visions of Japan’s future and important policy positions, but it also takes a special relish to criticizing Ozawa and the DPJ for “insisting upon drastic reforms” but “not referring to concrete proposals.” The Yomiuri editorial also quotes Ozawa’s 1993 book, Blueprint for a New Japan, on the importance of quality debate in the Diet, showing that in every democracy, the longer a politician serves, the easier it is for critics to dredge up old speeches and writings and use them as weapons. Noting that during his time as the head of the Liberal Party Ozawa emphasized the importance of question time, the editorial suggests that that Ozawa is gone. Restating the importance of direct confrontation in the Diet — “Question time is a good opportunity for the opposition to clarify how it differs from the governing party and to announce its presence” — the editorial hints at discontent within the DPJ over the wasted opportunity.

Having seen the outcome of direct debate between Abe and Ozawa in the Diet, I feel vindicated having argued that the DPJ may well be better off have prioritized campaigning around the country over vigorously challenging the government in the Diet. Direct debate has shown Ozawa to be inadequate to the task of presenting the DPJ as a serious contender for government and made the DPJ look confused and divided on the important policy questions of the day, just as I anticipated.

Considering that this debacle coincided with Asahi polls showing that support for Abe continues to rise and that the DPJ still has a lot of work to do to win support before July’s Upper House elections, it seems increasingly clear that Ozawa’s days as head of the DPJ are numbered, regardless of July’s results.

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