Who’s afraid of the old LDP?

The scheduled debate between Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ President Ozawa has been postponed until November 7th, following a closed meeting between the two that is being described by critics as “closed-door collusion.”

Apparently Komeito secretary-general Ota Akihrio was particularly concerned about meeting, fearing that Messrs. Fukuda and Ozawa were discussing a snap election for which his party is not ready. The prime minister reportedly told Mr. Ota not to worry.

Whatever the content of the discussion between the latest combatants in the Hatfield-McCoy feud Kaku-Fuku war, the secretive dealings of Mr. Fukuda will undoubtedly fuel a new round of alarmism about the return of the old LDP.

But as I’ve lately been reading Nathaniel Thayer’s classic How The Conservatives Rule Japan, I’ve thought a lot about what exactly the “old LDP” is. Is it the party of zoku giin working together with bureaucrats to formulate policy? Is it the party of factions duking it out to get their candidates elected and their senior officials in the cabinet? Massive koenkai? Structural corruption? The combine of big business yen, small business/farmer votes? Yoshida realism? Kishi conservatism? Miki liberalism? High posture? Low posture? Cabinets of strong men (cabinets that include the full spectrum of factions, like, say, Mr. Fukuda’s) versus “one-lunged” cabinets (cabinets rooted in factions and politicians loyal to the prime minister, like, say, Mr. Abe’s)? Reactionary or reformist (whether cynical or sincere)? Party men or bureaucrats?

The number of ways in which the LDP has historically been divided means that the phrase “old LDP” — found, in one form or another, in both the Japanese and foreign press — is meaningless without further explanation. It is not the kind of phrase that can be used and have the listener or reader automatically know what it means.

The LDP, it seems, has been different things at different times. Like most social entities, it has subject to a host of external and internal variables, not least the quality of the (invariably) men at the helm. There is no one “old LDP,” only old LDPs. There are few situations in contemporary Japanese politics for which there isn’t some precedent from the past fifty years (although the divided Diet we’re witnessing now is one of those periods without a true precedent). The one constant is that the LDP’s end is holding power. But the LDP never stopped trying to hold power. Mr. Koizumi’s talk of reforming the LDP had everything to do with ensuring that the LDP continues to hold power.

So to talk about a return to the “old LDP” is essentially meaningless. Conditions have changed: the money has dried up, undermining the old pork-barrel politics (just ask Tamura Kohei); there is more public scrutiny of political activities; more urbanization, so less reliable support; a main opposition party that is, while still raw in many ways, more ready to challenge the LDP for power than the old JSP; and from my point of view, worse leaders. The shift in these variables mean that there is no going back again. The LDP will not be the party it was decades ago, whatever that party was and no matter how hard certain LDP members try to recreate an idyllic past.

All of which goes to say that whatever the difficulties confronted by Mr. Fukuda now, he sits at the head of a resilient organization that has changed with its environment, and will not give in easily to Mr. Ozawa’s machinations.

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