Facing outright chaos in the party due to the perception that he was willing to consider — even for a moment — a grand coalition with the LDP, Ozawa Ichiro, grand old man of Japanese politics, has announced his resignation as head of the Democratic Party of Japan. (His announcement — which includes a slam at the media’s treatment of him — is available at Asahi.)
I am not surprised not only by his having to resign over this issue, but also that he won’t be leading the DPJ into a general election. Whatever his talent for election strategy, I viewed him as more of a liability as the face of the party than an asset, not least because — as MTC so sardonically observed — by turning to Mr. Ozawa, the DPJ made a pact with the devil (the devil being Tanaka Kakuei-style LDP politics). Undoubtedly a number of DPJ members were aware of and uncomfortable with this deal, and finally got their opportunity to move against Mr. Ozawa.
There are three pressing questions. The first is the future of the DPJ. Will the resignation of Mr. Ozawa send into a tailspin the opposition party that was brimming with confidence not too long ago? It depends on his successor, I think. I am of the opinion that Mr. Ozawa was actually a terrible person to have in the party leadership in the post-election situation. He clung to a confrontational posture for far too long; once Mr. Fukuda replaced Mr. Abe, the DPJ should have begun echoing Mr. Fukuda’s conciliatory tones and talking with the LDP about the rules of the game for the divided Diet. He also cemented his doom by antagonizing just about everyone within the DPJ by his maneuvers on the refueling mission, first upsetting the hawks by uncompromisingly opposing the measure, then shocking everyone else in the party by calling for an armed Japanese contribution to ISAF. Like geniuses and schizophrenics, he was playing by his own rules, but don’t ask me if he is the former or the latter.
In short, the party could benefit from his departure, particularly if it chooses a leader who is capable of articulating an identity for the DPJ that distances it from the LDP but still leaves enough ground for the parties to cooperate on legislation. For the moment, Kan Naoto will serve as acting president, with a party election likely to be held after the Diet session (although I wonder what will happen if Mr. Fukuda gets his wish and the session is extended a month — more on this in a moment). The favorite among the DPJ’s younger members appears to be Okada Katsuya (54), the former party leader who was trounced by former Prime Minister Koizumi in the September 2005 general election. I’m not sure whether Mr. Okada, who began his political life in the Tanaka faction and subsequently followed Mr. Ozawa through various opposition parties before winding up in the DPJ.
The DPJ, in fact, has a similar problem to the LDP: there is a dearth of leaders in their fifties. Having already turned to Mr. Maehara, one of the forty-something Young Turks, and encountered nothing but disaster, I suspect that the party will not be inclined to walk that path again. Mr. Kan, in fact, may find himself back in the leadership position by default.
The second question is what this means for the LDP. The departure of Mr. Ozawa, if followed by a protracted battle within the DPJ to choose a new leader, should give Mr. Fukuda plenty of momentum and will probably push back any suggestion of a general election. I suspect that the LDP might be tempted to call a snap election to take advantage of the DPJ’s disarray, but even in disarray the DPJ will probably still be able to deprive the governing coalition of a supermajority, meaning that Mr. Fukuda will likely resist the temptation to submit his government to the approval of the voters. The more immediate question is whether Mr. Fukuda can use this window to revive the sagging fortunes of his government’s new bill to authorize the MSDF refueling operation. Will an LDP PR campaign, under- or unchallenged by the DPJ, be enough to rally sufficient public support to the government’s side for the measure and give the LDP confidence that it can use its supermajority without fear of backlash?
Relatedly, what does this means for Japan’s security policy? The Bush administration will undoubtedly be thrilled to see the back of Mr. Ozawa, but the US might not like what follows in his wake. If Mr. Ozawa has an enduring legacy from his time as leader — apart from the DPJ’s near-majority in the Upper House and turmoil within the DPJ’s ranks — it will be in raising questions about how LDP governments since 2001 have conducted relations with the US. Mr. Ozawa never quite managed to elevate his opposition to the refueling mission into a coherent critique of Japanese foreign policy and Japan’s relationship with the US, in part because he was playing a balancing act among disparate elements of his party and thus clung to UN-centrism, but the critique is there for his successor to take up, if he so chooses. If so, foreign policy could be at the center of the next general election campaign.
All depends, of course, on Mr. Ozawa’s successor. Fortunately, with its control of the Upper House there is a limit to how far the party can fall. For the next three years, the party — provided it doesn’t shatter — will have a seat at the table.