I do not think it inappropriate to speak of a new era in Japanese politics; Professor Curtis is certainly convinced that Sunday’s catastrophic electoral defeat for the LDP marks the beginning of a new period of policy stasis, political gridlock, and perhaps the catalyst for the final destruction of the LDP. Indeed, the one bright spot in his remarks was the idea that this election was a victory for Japanese democracy — a notion I discussed here — since the voters punished the government for its inattentiveness to their concerns.
I will not even try to provide a full summary of his talk, which contained enough nuggets of wisdom to fill a long article or two, and anyway, you will be finding bits and pieces of his talk in foreign press coverage of the election over the next several days. I will, however, give you his main points. First, this election, rather than signifying an embrace of the DPJ, represents a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Abe, with voters saying no to his leadership, his policy priorities, and to his predecessor’s economic reforms (at least in the countryside). Accordingly, Professor Curtis insists that Abe should resign on account of the failures being a product of his insecurities, his ideological obsessions, and his reliance on yes-men, and yet he won’t: “He does not get it. He does not know why the voters rejected him.” (In that sense, Abe is just like his grandfather, who just couldn’t understand why the people were demonstrating against him and his treaty. As Abe wrote in his book — mentioned in this post — “I asked my grandfather, ‘What’s ampo?’ I dimly remember that thereupon he answered, ‘The Mutual Security Treaty [ampo] is a treaty so that Japan will receive protection from America. Why everyone is opposed to it, I don’t understand.'”)
Professor Curtis sees no good scenario resulting from the election, and he does not envision an early departure for Mr. Abe, who will try to use the cabinet reshuffle to signal a “new start” for his government. (Indications suggest that the reshuffle will not come until early September, after Mr. Abe’s tour of Indonesia, India, and Malaysia.) He will hold power in large part because opposition within the LDP is scattered and cowardly, an unfortunate consequence of the Koizumi era, which resulted in the emasculation and marginalization of faction heads and actors who might moderate the Kantei. At present, Abe’s opponents, including the “New YKK” of Kato Koichi, Yamasaki Taku, and Koga Makoto, as well as former Finance Minister Tanigaki are unable to agree on a successor — aside from preferring anybody but Aso — and are thus unwilling to take steps to oppose formally and publicly Abe’s remaining in power. This despite the widespread recognition, according to a senior LDP politician with whom Professor Curtis spoke about the election, that the LDP is like the Titanic except the passengers know it is going to sink — and they are powerless to stop it.
An intriguing question raised by Professor Curtis is whether Komeito, seeing its candidates lose unexpectedly and still caught uncomfortably between its principles and the pull of power, will use this defeat as an opportunity to back out of the coalition, or whether it too will go down with the ship. For the moment, it looks like Komeito won’t be going anywhere.
And the DPJ? Professor Curtis praised Ozawa for his brilliant electoral strategy of swooping in to rural areas alienated by the Koizumi reforms, but cautioned that Ozawa has a “fifteen-year-history of upsetting expectations that he will do good things for Japan,” and that his overweening pride and inability to cooperate with those who disagree with him undermine any party with which he is affiliated. He nixed the idea of any DPJ members leaving for the LDP, given the extent of the LDP’s loss, but he was skeptical of the idea that the DPJ is ready to assume the reins of power and suggested that the best thing for the DPJ might be Abe’s holding on to power for longer, giving them time to consolidate and build on their gains, and draft a coherent agenda — this of course runs contrary to DPJ’s now publicly stated objective of using its Upper House position to force an early general election.
So at this point anything is possible. An LDP crackup, a new partisan realignment, a moderate coup within the LDP that unseats Mr. Abe and tries to draw the DPJ’s conservatives to the LDP, Mr. Abe’s cabinet somehow lasting until September 2009, an early election called by Mr. Abe to try to profit from DPJ obstructionism: any one of these scenarios is possible, which in the meantime will mean that the policy making process grinds to a halt.