The DPJ’s first tactical mistake?

The debate over the extension of the anti-terror special measures law is quickly becoming the defining issue of the post-election political environment, with each party struggling to stand fast and embarrass the other side — with Washington watching closely for signs of whether Japan’s commitment to the alliance is withering, and wondering whether the DPJ can be trusted.

Even before Ozawa meets with Ambassador Schieffer on Wednesday, there are signs that the DPJ might be willing to compromise. On Sunday, DPJ Acting President Kan Naoto signaled that the party recognizes the differences between the Iraq and Afghanistan missions, hinting that it might be open to a compromise bill, but not before raking the government over the coals. Prime Minister Abe responded on Monday with conciliatory gestures in a press conference following the ceremony in Hiroshima.

For his part, Amaki Naoto, former diplomat and recent Upper House candidate on a anti-constitution revision platform, is convinced that the issue is all about Japan’s subservience to the US and its participation in America’s wars, and that the DPJ will have little choice but to cave eventually.

So if the DPJ is in fact destined to step down and compromise on the extension, what will drive it to do so? A desire to avoid appearing irresponsible and incapable of governing, an impression that would undoubtedly result from a serious dispute with the US? Fear of secession by the hawkish Maehara wing of the party if the leadership pushes too hard against this bill?

Interestingly, this issue may be more of a wedge for the DPJ than the for the LDP-Komeito governing coalition. As Jun Okumura argues, there are good reasons for Komeito to stick with the LDP despite the recent emergence of ideological fissures within the coalition, not least because it is unclear whether the DPJ will be a more suitable partner for Komeito on foreign policy. Meanwhile, this issue highlights differences between the DPJ’s Upper and Lower House caucuses. As an article in Yomiuri (not online) noted, DPJ members in the Upper House caucus are more likely to be in the former Social Democrat or Democratic Socialist groups, and beyond that Maehara’s group is centered on the House of Representatives. It seems that the danger for the DPJ is the DPJ-controlled Upper House’s pushing forward legislation that the party’s Lower House caucus finds difficult to support. Why the party hasn’t put more emphasis on pocketbook issues as a way to unite keep the party united and maintain considerable pressure on the government is beyond me.

As such, if the DPJ ends up backing down on this issue, I’m not exactly clear what it will have gained. It will have exacerbated fissures within the party needlessly, while giving the government a chance to regroup in the aftermath of the landslide defeat. The DPJ could not have made it any easier for the LDP to rally, with members standing up in the Diet haranguing the DPJ for abandoning the US, endangering Japan’s security, and shirking Japan’s burden to support global security. Indeed, the LDP’s line in this confrontation will undoubtedly resemble this editorial in Sankei, which wonders whether the DPJ “is following the road of a responsible political party.”

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