What does Osaka tell us?

In the first major election since Mr. Fukuda took office as prime minister, the DPJ-backed candidate for mayor in Osaka bested the LDP-Komeito-backed candidate by some 50,000 votes. Mr. Hatoyama, the DPJ secretary-general, was quick to proclaim the significance of the victory: “This election is symbolic for national politics. This is proof that the people of Osaka do not approve of the Fukuda cabinet.” DPJ leaders also were quick to point out that the party need not fear consequences of the turmoil surrounding Mr. Ozawa’s “resignation.”

The LDP response is more confused, with some dismissing the significance of the municipal election and others suggesting that this is a continuation of a trend that began with the LDP defeat in July.

It is important to keep things in perspective. Yes, the government lost a municipal election in a city in which the LDP and Komeito combined to win eighteen seats in the 2005 general election. But that was twice as many seats as the two governing parties won in Osaka-fu in the 2003 general election. In other words, the DPJ would have been well-placed to succeed in Osaka regardless of the quality of the party’s leadership or the occupant of the Kantei. It should be no surprise that the LDP will face an uphill battle in places like Osaka and Tokyo, where its vote totals were inflated to abnormal, unsustainable levels.

The critical factor when looking to the outcome of a general election remains the countryside. A repeat of July 2007, and the LDP could be in serious trouble. This election tells us nothing about the LDP’s prospects in rural Japan. It does tell us that Mr. Fukuda still has a lot of work to do if he’s going to pick up where Mr. Koizumi left off in the project to turn the LDP into a modern, urban-based party.

The DPJ should not take this occasion to gloat. As Mainchi reports, the DPJ’s legislative agenda is at “a do-or-die moment,” as the fate of bills passed by the DPJ in the Upper House remains uncertain. In other words, the DPJ is facing the reality of the post-July Diet: it needs the LDP’s assent to do anything constructive. It could, of course, pin its hopes on public backlash against LDP obstructionism, but there are few guarantees that the public will react exactly how the party hopes it will.

The result may be a quid-pro-quo, with the DPJ’s backing down on the anti-terror law in exchange for the LDP’s assent to laws passed in the Upper House relating to pension funds and agricultural subsidies (although I have a hard time seeing how the DPJ can back away from a position on which Mr. Ozawa seems to have staked his reputation, and which has conveniently united most of the DPJ). Nevertheless, with Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Fukuda set to meet once again time this Thursday, a bargain of this sort could be in the making.

Nothing may come of this next meeting — at least, nothing like what happened in the wake of the last meeting between the two party leaders. But the underlying challenge of establishing the rules of the game for the divided Diet remains, regardless of the latest election returns.

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