Watching the fault lines

When looking at the post-election political landscape, observers have turned to the Democratic Party of Japan and asked whether it has the durability to press its advantage following the election and push for a quick dissolution and general election. After all, one need not look all that far back for signs of division within the party.

For the moment, I think that talk of a party split is premature, because nothing succeeds like success.

But the rifts exist, ready to reopen at the first sign of trouble. The DPJ “faction” usually cited as a potential splinter group is that of former DPJ party leader Maehara Seiji, who led the party for a brief period following the party’s disastrous showing in the 2005 House of Representatives election until forced to resign as a result of the DPJ’s claiming — based on a fake e-mail — that LDP politicians took bribes from convicted Live Door head Horie Takafumi.

Maehara’s faction, a group known as the Ryounkai [凌雲会] is generally recognized as “conservative” or “neo-conservative,” and many of its members voiced their support for Koizumi-style structural reform, not to mention their support for constitutional revision, the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, and more robust China and Korea policies. By the reckoning of one blogger at Kihachin, this group and its associates in the DPJ could number somewhere between four and five dozen members, with most of its members in the House of Representatives.

It is for this reason that the DPJ leadership’s emphasis on opposing the renewal of the anti-terror special measures law is important. Mr. Maehara has already come out in opposition to the DPJ’s official position, stating that he thinks renewal is “essential,” although he criticized the government’s failure to explain its reasoning.

As noted in this month’s issue of The Oriental Economist, Mr. Ozawa may be using the anti-terror law as a wedge issue to drive Komeito out of the governing coalition and back into his arms (remember the self-destructive role played by Ozawa’s alliance with Komeito’s Ichikawa Yuichi — the Ichi-Ichi line — in bringing down the anti-LDP coalition engineered by Ozawa). This might work. It is no secret that a massive gulf separates the foreign and security policy positions of Komeito and the Abe government of which they are a part. Indeed, Asahi, in its editorial today, lambastes Komeito President Ota Akihiro for immediately reaffirming his party’s support for the government, despite the serious blow suffered by his party last week — and despite alienating supporters by tacitly support policy positions that are fundamentally at odds with Komeito’s. In other words, Mr. Ozawa is gambling that it is more likely to attract Komeito than to repel the Maehara group. For the moment, that may work, especially if Mr. Ozawa can, by meeting with Ambassador Schieffer next week, dispel some of the concerns that have arisen from the US.

This position is not without risk, not least because it could undermine DPJ efforts to present itself as capable of wielding power. At the moment, according to a Yomiuri poll cited in an op-ed criticizing the DPJ position on the extension, 46% found the DPJ incapable of wielding political power compared to 36% who thought otherwise.

I don’t expect any changes immediately, but much will depend on how the DPJ leadership deals with the fallout from its initial announcements and how it intends to move the issue forward henceforth.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ozawa, it seems, is not the only one in need of a few days’ rest. On TV today, Matsuzoe Yoichi said that the LDP doesn’t have the energy for a leadership fight at present. He might as well have been discussing the entire Japanese political system. All parties appear to be bracing for the coming turmoil, in which Mr. Maehara and company may be set to play an important role.

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