Can’t go home again

In an essay in the forthcoming issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review that I co-authored with Doug Turner, we discuss that the challenge for the LDP going forward is reconfiguring the party’s identity for the post-Koizumi era. Reform or reaction? Urban or rural? These are the questions that the party has to answer.

And yet the answer at the moment seems to be a return to the party’s pre-Koizumi roots. Mr. Aso has come out and said that he has “no objections” to welcoming stalwart postal rebel Hiranuma Takeo back into the party’s fold without conditions. It is unclear whether Mr. Hiranuma will accept Mr. Aso’s amnesty, but the offer itself is a sign that the LDP is clueless about how to go forward.

As MTC notes, “Koizumi’s expulsion of the opponents of reform demonstrated that the LDP had changed, that the party had tossed off its hidebound and self-serving ways. Now, if Hiranuma is back in, the whole bloody exercise becomes moot.”

I can’t help but wonder if the LDP thinks that all that is wrong is that a few bad eggs in the cabinet spoiled the party’s image before the election, and that if it simply purges the perpetrators expeditiously whenever allegations of corruption (or incompetence?) become unmanageable, everything will go back to normal. While I don’t think the Japanese people are exactly running into the arms of the DPJ, I do think that voters are not going to be especially forgiving of the LDP, particularly after the bait-and-switch act that followed the 2005 landslide.

So whose party will it be? Mr. Hiranuma’s? Or the Koizumi children’s? It certainly won’t be Mr. Abe’s, unless leaving the party more adrift than before his tenure counts as leaving his personal mark upon the party. At Contentions, Michael Auslin recognizes, “Abe has to start showing results,” but then concludes that his efforts should be focused entirely on international initiatives. Forget structural reform. Forget education or health care. Mr. Abe should dazzle the people with the Asian community of democracies. Given the silence that greeted Mr. Abe’s proposal, it’s appropriate to ask if the Japanese people even noticed his remarks in New Delhi, and if they noticed, it’s important to ask if they care.

Mr. Abe’s — and the LDP’s — problems will not be solved by prancing around on the international stage. At some point they will have to present a constructive, concrete agenda to the people that will, one way or another, settle the urban-rural question. Will the LDP be the party of Japan’s urban future, or will it defend the interests of the dying rural past? (Mind you, I’m not treating the latter as a negative. Someone will have to represent the interests of rural Japan; the more interesting question is how.) The bizarre hybrid that is the LDP today, however, will not last. In fact, the current combination is pretty much guaranteed to leave everyone dissatisfied, hence the July defeat.

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