Mr. Ozawa, just say no

Dear Mr. Ozawa,

I never properly congratulated you on a job well done in the Upper House election campaign. Many doubted you, but you managed to show them that you know what the Japanese voters want to hear.

But now, it seems, you’re in the something of a bind. Maybe winning the Upper House wasn’t such a great thing after all. Hard to be both an opposition party and responsible for a house of the Diet, isn’t it?

And here comes Mr. Fukuda to the rescue, with designs for a grand coalition with the DPJ that will apparently save you from this dilemma. It seems that observers were right to suspect that Mr. Fukuda had something like this up his sleeve.

I am pleased to see that you rejected his initial entreaties. But surely this won’t be the last you hear of Mr. Fukuda. Presumably he will take this act, this sob story about how hard it is to govern, to the people in the hope that they will pressure you to accept his offer. Perhaps you’re thinking, maybe joining the government is the best way to undermine the LDP, a re-run of the LDP-Liberal coalition with Prime Minister Obuchi.

Dismiss any such thoughts now. The only party that will gain from a grand coalition is the LDP. The LDP, facing some tough decisions about the fiscal health of Japan (including a possible consumption tax hike), would love nothing more than to have a partner in crime. It would love to use you as a shield to protect it from public disapproval. Don’t be that shield. Don’t sacrifice the goodwill you’ve developed as the leading opposition party to become Mr. Fukuda’s patsy.

You are, after all, virtually part of the government already. The government needs your cooperation to pass laws. That gives you considerable power over what happens in the Diet, if you use it right. It also gives you some distance to question the government when its priorities are mistaken, and will make it harder to disagree publicly on foreign policy.

So flirt with the LDP. Go on a few dates. But don’t move in with it. You will, at some point, have to show that you’re serious about this relationship; you’ll have to find some legislation on which you’re willing to work with the LDP, just to show them that you’ve moved beyond a purely confrontational stance.

This posture will not be easy to maintain, requiring careful calibration of when and how to disagree or cooperate. Joining the government looks the easy option. But the primrose path…

Finally, don’t count on an early election. Do what you need to do to ensure that the party is ready for an election at any time, but assume that an election will be later rather than earlier.

You mustn’t forget that your party has a hard enough time distinguishing itself from the LDP as it is; joining the government would likely blur whatever distinctions remain and perhaps destroy your own party.

Good luck, gambare, and just say no.

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