Hashimoto Daijiro: key to a DPJ government?

As noted by MTC in this post, Hashimoto Daijiro, who served as governor of Kochi prefecture for sixteen years (1991-2007), has announced that before the next general election he will create a new party dedicated to radical decentralization that will give prefectural and local governments the tools with which to tackle socio-economic problems that have thus far been ignored by Tokyo.

MTC sees Mr. Hashimoto’s announcement as stealing the thunder of Hiranuma Takeo, who has been talking about forming a new conservative party for months without doing anything about it.

(That’s what he gets for waiting for his friends in the LDP — why would they leave the LDP to join Mr. Hiranuma in the wilderness when Fukuda Yasuo could fall at any time? And so Mr. Hiranuma is stuck with the eccentric exiles from the LDP, hardly a catalyst for triggering a political realignment.)

I’m more interested in the consequences of Mr. Hashimoto’s announcement on the DPJ’s prospects in the next general election.

DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro has, as discussed here before, made a point during his two years as head of the DPJ of bolstering the party’s position in rural prefectures, building a DPJ that can contend with the LDP throughout Japan, not just in urban areas. He has had considerable success thus far; rural voters may be losing their allergy to DPJ candidates, if the results of last year’s local and upper house elections are any indication.

Will Mr. Hashimoto, as a popular longtime governor of a rural prefecture in Shikoku, and his new party dedicated to decentralization undermine Mr. Ozawa’s efforts in rural Japan?

Alternatively, will Mr. Hashimoto hurt the DPJ in wealthier suburban prefectures like Kanagawa, prefectures that might resent how the central government channels their wealth to poorer areas?

In short, will the HNP be a significant enough presence in the next general election to divide the anti-LDP vote and save the LDP from itself?

Mr. Hashimoto had harsh words for both the LDP and the DPJ in his announcement Tuesday, and although he met with senior representatives from both parties in May — Yosano Kaoru from the LDP, Hatoyama Yukio from the DPJ — he denied that he was meeting with them to discuss cooperation with either.

While it’s one thing to declare the formation of a party, quite another for the party to be a serious, viable contender in an election campaign, the DPJ should take the creation of the HNP seriously and view it as a serious threat to its bid to unseat the LDP in the next election. I expect that it does, and I expect that Mr. Ozawa is working on a way to join forces with Mr. Hashimoto and use his popularity as a weapon against the LDP.

But for now the DPJ and the HNP will be competing, not cooperating. The DPJ has already endorsed a candidate — Tamura Kumiko, who stood for election in Kochi-2 and lost by considerable margins in 2003 and 2005 — for Kochi’s first district, the district in which Mr. Hashimoto will stand. Will the DPJ withdraw its endorsement and give its support to Mr. Hashimoto to cement an alliance with the HNP, especially given that Mr. Hashimoto stands a strong chance of winning the district? Is Mr. Hashimoto willing to consider an alliance with either the LDP or the DPJ (is his support for sale to the highest bidder, the party that will promise the most progress on decentralization)?

This speculation is perhaps premature, as it is unknown how many candidates the HNP will be able to field — and where it will field them. For now, the only sitting Diet member who has agreed to cooperate with Mr. Hashimoto is Eda Kenji, an independent representative from Kanagawa-8, the only non-LDP winner from Kanagawa in 2005. Will more come? And if so, from where?

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