Expanding options

I am increasingly led to think that there is one principle common among both states in the international system and politicians within a domestic political system (especially democracies), it is that power is rooted in flexibility. The more options an actor has, the better able he is to outmaneuver rivals and secure other interests.

A classic example of this principle in the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China, in which the US, in a stroke, exercised the option of a tacit anti-Soviet alliance in Asia to hem in the USSR while expanding US flexibility.

Prime Minister Fukuda, I think, understands this — the fewer the commitments, ideological or otherwise, the greater the flexibility and thus the greater the advantage over rivals. The more one is open to a rival’s policy ideas, the easier to undermine that rival. Mr. Koizumi was a master of this, “borrowing” DPJ policies to the consternation of the DPJ. This principle was undoubtedly behind the prime minister’s cabinet picks, neutralizing potential rivals by depriving them of reasons for contention (and co-opting them into his government).

Accordingly, it is no surprise that on Wednesday Mr. Fukuda met with Takagi Tsuyoshi, the head of Rengo, an ally of the DPJ, to discuss labor policy, including the minimum wage and pensions. The prime minister proclaimed his desire to cooperate with the DPJ on pensions reform and urged Mr. Takagi to push the DPJ to cooperate with the government.

At the same time, Mr. Ozawa, as a result of his restlessness, has painted his party into a corner. He has spurned cooperation with the government — by which I mean routine cooperation across party lines, not a coalition. He has shifted course in opposition to the government’s anti-terror law enough to give whiplash to DPJ members and members of other opposition parties alike. As a result, he has, according to MTC, weakened his party’s bonds with the minor opposition parties whose support the DPJ needs within the Diet in order to exercise a majority in the Upper House and whose cooperation is essential if the DPJ is to have any chance of winning a general election.

There is no guarantee, of course, that Mr. Fukuda and the LDP will succeed in the battle over the anti-terror law as the extraordinary session concludes. But I think that, despite the appearance of tottering on the brink of disaster, Mr. Fukuda is in a good position. He has stabilized his party’s situation following the wreck of the Abe cabinet and has maneuvered the DPJ into a position of passing legislation in the House of Councillors that stands little chance of being adopted in the House of Representatives, such as the newly passed bill calling for the withdrawal of Air Self-Defense Forces elements in Iraq.

Of course, Mr. Fukuda’s leadership has not been free of mistakes that have limited his room for maneuver. The biggest mistake may have been retaining the anti-terror law as agenda item number one. Dropping it may have been politically untenable for the new prime minister — I still suspect he has no great desire to commit Japanese forces to the mission, this being the unspoken message of his remarks in Washington — but the result is that Mr. Fukuda may have no choice but to use his government’s supermajority in the House of Representatives to pass the bill lest he lose credibility with the US, undermine his position within the LDP, and hand a victory to the DPJ. I don’t think Mr. Fukuda has a problem using the supermajority, but I think he would rather use his government’s silver bullet on issues that are higher on his government’s and the Japanese people’s list of priorities.

Accordingly, look for Mr. Fukuda to continue to seek partners for his initiatives, ignoring party and ideological lines in the process. At some point, he will have to deliver something, but in the meantime a willingness to cooperate will not be his undoing.

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