Why a realignment is inevitable

Janne Morén’s recent post on institutional loyalty (thanks for the reminder, MTC) provides an excellent argument for why to anticipate a new political realignment in the near future.

He writes:

If we return to politics, the situation shares some similarities and there is a clear possibility of a similar dissolution of loyalty between lawmakers and their parties. More and more of pre- and post-election resources are tied to the politician personally, and come from sources other than their party. A party of course offers their name – political branding – and a party affiliation is often necessary to partake in the give-and-take of parliamentary work (you need party support for juicy positions, just like you need a research affiliate for grants), but again, there is no real reason to stay with one particular party at any cost. The more an election costs the less beholden is the candidate. A veteran lawmaker (or dynastic scion) comes with his own district-wide name recognition, his well-tested local organization and a stable cadre of financial donors (legal or not; improper political donations are a leading cause of indictments here). An established politician may in fact need his party quite a bit less than the party needs him.

Lawmakers do shop around in Japanese politics; a not inconsiderate number of lawmakers have switched parties, sometimes several times, during their careers. And you can argue that the same mechanism is at play among internal party factions in the LDP, with individuals changing their allegiance in return for a cabinet post or committee membership. This, by the way, happens very rarely in Sweden, as most election costs are borne by the parties, not the representative. As internal cohesion weakens and parties become little more than amorphous blobs discussion clubs for mutual backing (the ideological range within both the LDP and DPJ almost beggars belief), the next step would be to dispense with party affiliation as a major criteria for case by case cooperation altogether.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why a political realignment is pretty near inevitable.

The LDP, and Japanese political parties in general, have never been known for their cohesiveness. Indeed, a longtime foreign correspondent once quipped to me about the LDP, “The party may be known as the Jiminto (自民党), but each member is his own Jibunto (自分党).” The prevalence of koenkai and hereditary Diet members in the postwar period meant that financial independence was common for LDP members; they depended upon the party for jobs and for pork.

What binds members to their parties today? The most important factor, at least for lesser-known members, may be the party’s endorsement to run as a candidate (the “branding” factor). It certainly isn’t policy: policy loyalty seems directed more at sub-party groups — factions or study groups — than the party at large.

That said, I do not think that party affiliation is on the road to irrelevancy. The situation described by Mr. Morén simply shows the failure of the current political arrangement. The LDP and the DPJ are fundamentally incoherent, divided as much or more within as between the parties. This fact is universally recognized, at least in the Japanese political world. Few doubt that a realignment is necessary. The question now is how the realignment will unfold: who will make the first move? What issue(s) will form the basis for the identities of the new parties? Taxation? Deregulation? The welfare system? Foreign policy?

Of course, the new (or newly transformed) parties will be divided in different ways — and members will still be financially independent from the party leadership. But they will likely inspire greater loyalty from their members than the current LDP and DPJ.

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