The frog and the scorpion?

From August 3rd to 6th, Jiji asked voters what kind of government they would prefer. The top? An LDP-DPJ grand coalition, with 27.5% of respondents supporting it. Only 11.9% wanted the LDP-Komeito coalition to continue, while only 10.8% wanted a solely LDP government. Respondents seemed indifferent to which party was at the center of the coalition, with 22.7% wanting an LDP-centered government and 22.8% wanting a DPJ-centered government.

Seemingly feeding off of this finding, Yomiuri used its most self-righteously nonpartisan tone in an editorial Thursday to argue for an LDP/DPJ coalition based on the recognition that the LDP stands no chance of regaining an Upper House majority in 2010 or 2013, and that the procedures for a Lower House override of an Upper House “veto” are cumbersome. Not surprisingly, Yomiuri looks to Germany and argues that Japan’s serious, long-term problems depend a new, broad-based coalition: “Considering the life of the people and the national interest, there are probably more than a few cases in which they will not be able to avoid pragmatic compromises.”

I can understand why the Japanese people, who have long since lost confidence in Japan’s political leadership (aside from Mr. Koizumi, of course), would desire a grand coalition that would put national interests before partisan interests and make policy for the nation. This is probably the kind of thing Ozawa Ichiro would have been pushing for if he was still in the LDP.

But that’s exactly why this idea is impossible, because if the DPJ were to join a coalition with the LDP, it would be a death sentence for the DPJ, whether because it would force a split in the party or because the DPJ’s presence in a coalition government would make it a convenient scapegoat for policy failures and should serious reform prove impossible taint the party in the eyes of reform-minded urban voters. Surely the former Socialists in the DPJ remember their old party’s pact with the devil in 1994 that resulted in Murayama Tomiichi’s serving as prime minister on the back of the LDP — and drove a stake into the heart of the onetime leading opposition party. Meanwhile, with Ozawa and the DPJ leadership intent on using momentum from last month’s elections to force the government to dissolve the Lower House prematurely, there is not a chance that they would entertain the idea of assisting the LDP in stopping the hemorrhaging of its support. Also, I have to wonder who exactly would serve as prime minister in Yomiuri‘s dream cabinet. I think it is safe to say that the DPJ will not become party to an Abe government.

Philosophically speaking, I have a problem with bipartisanship elevated to the level of a grand coalition. One of the benefits of partisan competition is that the party in opposition is capable of holding the government accountable — even if in some (or all) democracies this role is sometimes taken to extremes. Who will hold the government accountable if there are only a handful of small parties on the opposition side of the aisle? Yomiuri would say — has said — that the national interest supersedes partisan competition, but partisan competition is not solely or even primarily about policy, at least not in Japanese political system, with considerable overlap between LDP and DPJ policies. A strong opposition and the emergence of a proper two-party system with the LDP and DPJ alternating in power should result in better policy making for Japan, with governments punished for failing to deliver, meaning that future elections may well resemble the July Upper House elections in being more about the competency and priorities of the government than any particular disputes about the policy agenda. But in that case, it is imperative for the DPJ to take its role as the leading opposition party more seriously, questioning the government’s failures to deliver whenever they occur. (And why should the DPJ join the government to try to force the LDP to compromise on policy when its control of the Upper House for the foreseeable future provides an excellent platform from which to force the government to bargain?)

Meanwhile, Yomiuri provides a list of national problems that must be addressed (social security, North Korea, the rise of China, tax reform, nursing care, et al). But if these issues are as important for Japan as Yomiuri insists, ought they not be deliberated upon publicly in Japan’s elected legislature, rather than within the less transparent confines of the government? The solutions ought to be national, not the product of decisions made by a coven of two parties foisted upon everyone else.

Beyond this, I have to wonder whether an LDP-DPJ grand coalition would ultimately resemble the parable of the frog and the scorpion, in which the scorpion offered a frog a ride across a river, only to start stinging the frog midway across, drowning them both. A grand coalition would most likely serve as catalyst for the much-ballyhooed political realignment, essentially turning the clock back to 1993 and raising the possibility for a more rational two-party system. All the more reason to dismiss the possibility, because neither party seems ready to commit suicide.

2 thoughts on “The frog and the scorpion?

  1. Anonymous

    When I read the Yomiuri editorial (English edition) about the grand coalition I just had to role my eyes.Perhaps it is just my misperception, but the Japanese seem so set (and dependent) upon making it look like everyone agrees with a decision that they cannot engage in a public long term, critical debate where two (or more parties) may never come to agreement.Japan does have some tough decisions that have to be made. Coming crises in energy and population can\’t be ignored forever. Yet there are multiple paths that can be taken (on policies), that very well may lead Japan to some rather different futures. Will Japan\’s politicians be able to deal with these issues, and arguments about possible solutions, in public?


  2. Bryce

    Well, we know where the Yomiuri\’s loyalties lie. If the LDP is forced out of power, the Yomiuri ceases to be the government\’s think tank.


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