Idealism and realism in the DPJ

The Japanese political system’s pendulum continues to swing, as the DPJ’s fortunes are worsening at the moment that Fukuda Yasuo’s fortunes are on an upswing.

The tension within the DPJ is spilling into the open again, with Maehara Seiji waging an open campaign on the pages of Japan’s monthlies against what he sees as disingenuousness in the DPJ’s policy platform as presented in the party’s 2007 election manifesto.

The main target of Mr. Maehara’s ire is the party’s plan to provide 18 trillion yen in subsidies to small farmers, a plan described by Mr. Maehara in Chuo Koron as “completely impossible” to implement. He went further and suggested that if the DPJ takes the government, it will be unable to govern. His contributions to Chuo Koron and Voice, however, prompted criticism from other DPJ members. Tsutsui Nobutaka, the agriculture minister in the DPJ’s “Next Cabinet” and other DPJ members emailed the party’s members to call for Mr. Maehara to leave the party. [MTC informs me in the comments that he believes that Mr. Tsutsui demanded that Mr. Maehara step down from his position as a deputy leader of the party, a reasonable request in my eyes.] Hatoyama Yukio responded by criticizing Mr. Tsutsui for misusing the party’s email system — and Mr. Maehara for speaking impertinently about the break-up of the party.

Mr. Maehara’s concern about the DPJ’s ability to govern is touching, and his desire for truth in advertising in politics noble — but ultimately irrelevant. The DPJ made a decision when it embraced Ozawa Ichiro, first by merging with his Liberal Party, then by making Mr. Ozawa party leader, to embrace Mr. Ozawa’s cynical political maneuvering. The DPJ spent the first half of its life as the party of the high road, whose good intentions would propel it to victory over the LDP. But good intentions, which might have worked had Mori Yoshiro lasted more than a year as prime minister, were inadequate in the face of a skilled political operator like Koizumi Junichiro, the master manipulator who both desired change and, as head of the LDP, had the ability to act on his reformist intentions (unlike the DPJ, mired in impotent opposition).

Mr. Ozawa was to be the antidote to Koizumism. The DPJ would play hardball. It would not wait for the Japanese people to see the merits of DPJ reformism and embrace it accordingly. It would swing violently between confrontation and cooperation with the government (Ozawa-induced whiplash), campaign hard nationally, and put politics before policy in a single-minded effort to force the LDP from power. The emphasis on support for small farmers was central to Mr. Ozawa’s strategy. It is likely that Mr. Ozawa knows that as long as rural areas control a disproportionately large number of votes in lower house elections — and as long as the LDP has a lock on the votes of the small farmers — the LDP will not lose power. As a result, as long as the DPJ remains an urban, reformist party dependent on the sympathy of floating voters, it will remain in opposition (and vulnerable to reversals like 2005, when urban voters deserted the DPJ for Mr. Koizumi). And so Mr. Ozawa has poured his efforts into strengthening the party’s position in rural Japan. He has personally campaigned around the country, undoubtedly a factor in the DPJ’s success in largely rural single-seat prefectures last summer. He has emphasized support to small farmers in the form of the subsidies criticized by Mr. Maehara. The subsidies might be bad policy — terrible policy even — but politically they might make the difference between the DPJ’s remaining in opposition or winning enough seats in the next election to form a government. Having been completely shut out of single member districts in seventeen mostly rural prefectures in the 2005 general election and fifteen in the 2003 general election, strong campaigns in these areas will determine whether the DPJ wins: the cities will most likely swing back to the DPJ, but the countryside is up for grabs, and holds the key to taking power.

Mr. Maehara, of course, is not interested in power, at least not first and foremost; Mr. Ozawa is. He wants power to be wielded properly, hence his echoing of the LDP complaint about the DPJ’s being unable to govern. By making Mr. Ozawa party leader, the DPJ rejected idealism — whether Mr. Maehara’s right-wing idealism or Kan Naoto’s left-wing idealism — and embraced realism, realism in the pursuit of regime change and power. Mr. Maehara will continue to rail against the prevailing realism, and he (or a surrogate) will likely challenge Mr. Ozawa in September, but his protests will likely be of little use. The party has thrown in its lot with Mr. Ozawa, and will do whatever it takes to win the next election, up to and including fudging the numbers in its policy program.

Will Mr. Maehara’s dissatisfaction lead to his defection? If he means what he says, he won’t be jumping to the LDP, which is not exactly a paragon of idealistic governance. And while the media is speculating about Mr. Koizumi’s creating a proto-party with Mr. Maehara and Koike Yuriko, that remains groundless speculation. To leave before an election risks being wiped out should the DPJ copy Mr. Koizumi and send “assassins” to unseat Mr. Maehara and his followers. If he does leave, it will be after an election, when he can let the LDP and the DPJ bid for his loyalty as they struggle to assemble a government should the next election produce a hung parliament. In the meantime, Mr. Maehara will make his peace with Mr. Ozawa’s realism, not least because the pendulum will likely swing back towards idealism in time. It is unlikely that Mr. Ozawa’s realism will survive his leadership of the party.

Meanwhile, DPJ members have other reasons to be dissatisfied with Mr. Ozawa’s leadership. Party members are reportedly unhappy with a decision to boycott lower house debates in the wake of the upper house censure motion — a foolish decision considering that the lower house is deliberating on opposition-sponsored bills that have already passed the upper house, including the bill calling for scrapping the new eldercare system. The communists have been left to defend the legislation in deliberations.

This is the reality of life under Mr. Ozawa: regular, unpredictable changes of tactics with little regard for ideals and principles, grandstanding, and policy taking the backseat to politics. But for better or worse, the DPJ is likely stuck with Mr. Ozawa at least until the next election.

2 thoughts on “Idealism and realism in the DPJ

  1. Japan Observer – I believe that in demanding that Maehara taiba, Tsutsui-san is asking only that Maehara resign from his leadership fuku daihyo position, not from the DPJ itself…The DPJ leadership accepted Maehara into the upper ranks of the party hierarchy in the hopes that making him one of those nominally responsible for DPJ policy positions would encourage him to shut up. Since he has not stopped criticizing DPJ positions in public fora, it is reasonable that he be asked to cede his place to someone who knows how to keep his/her opposition to party policies behind closed caucus doors.


  2. MTC,Thanks for the comment. The press coverage, however, has been ambiguous about what exactly Tsutsui-san was demanding in his email. (How nice it would be if it were possible to read the actual text of the email…)But you\’re right: what is Maehara doing as one of the party\’s deputy chiefs if he thinks the party is so gravely incompetent?(That said, remember Ozawa said something similar when he resigned: the party isn\’t ready to govern.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s