Bait and switch

The HR passed the road construction bill a second time on Tuesday afternoon, as scheduled. Despite rumors to the contrary, there was no rebellion. Kono Taro and his comrades voted with the government, in the process illustrating why the much-anticipated political realignment has yet to occur: for all the discontent voiced by backbenchers about the leadership of both the LDP and the DPJ, they remain reluctant to bear the risks associated with bucking the party leadership and possibly leaving the party.

Mr. Kono and other reformists are still threatening to fight for the party to adopt the prime minister’s plan to phase out the road construction fund from 2009, but after caving on the road construction plan Tuesday, will their concerns be taken seriously in the coming months? As Mainichi reports, despite remaining silent in the face of the cabinet decision supporting Mr. Fukuda’s plan, the road tribe remains ready to fight to preserve its privileges. The road tribesmen will instead focus their efforts on the year-end budget proposal, a sound strategy considering that Mr. Fukuda will likely be gone by then, leaving the reformists to fight on alone.

Even with Mr. Fukuda as premier the tribesmen have important allies within the party for their campaign to derail the reform: local and prefectural politicians, who will undoubtedly remind their patrons in Tokyo that their communities need the road fund and suggest that if Mr. Fukuda’s plan goes forward, they cannot guarantee that the LDP will get favorable returns in the next general election. Whether such a threat is credible is not the issue — if the LDP leadership becomes convinced that ending the special fund truly alienates the party from its supposed base, that will be enough to ensure that the reform plan gets watered down to the point of irrelevance. The head of the national mayors association has already criticized the plan, no doubt the first of many such comments to come from local politicians.

In short, the LDP, already concerned that its rural base could desert the party in a general election, will not follow through on Mr. Fukuda’s proposal, a classic bait and switch.

And so the LDP’s death throes will continue, as the LDP can no longer rely on the two methods that had extended its life in the past: opportunistic policy shifts (like this, for example) and “divide-and-rule.” (These arguments are made by Ito Atsuo in a Chuo Koron article to which I linked above.) Regarding the former, not only has the LDP calcified ideologically, but its reformist members, who want to change the party’s policies, find it nearly impossible to overcome the opposition of older members who desperately cling to their remaining privileges. What do the latter have to lose in resisting reform tooth-and-nail? The party is in no position to punish them, Mr. Koizumi’s 2005 purge notwithstanding. Mr. Koizumi’s purge of postal rebels — so objectionable to many LDP members, judging by the return of most of the rebels to the LDP — was clearly an aberration.

As for the latter, the LDP’s bid to divide and co-opt the opposition by offering a grand coalition to the DPJ clearly failed and if anything united the DPJ in its opposition to the government. This scheme may have temporarily created turmoil within the DPJ by intensifying dissatisfaction with Ozawa Ichiro’s leadership, but Mr. Ozawa appears to have quelled most of the resistance to his leadership. The LDP continues to hope that Mr. Ozawa will face a serious challenge in the September party leadership election but the threat to Mr. Ozawa may be overstated. A reformist like Maehara Seiji or Okada Katsuya, both former party leaders, may ultimately stand against Mr. Ozawa, but it is unlikely that the bulk of the party will abandon Mr. Ozawa for either man.

Meanwhile, the depth of the LDP’s desperation is revealed in its hope for an incapacitated DPJ.

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