Will the DPJ’s uncontested election have consequences?

Noda Yoshihiko’s decision not to challenge Ozawa Ichiro for the DPJ presidency has prompted the expected comments from LDP politicians about the DPJ’s failings.

Aso Taro, never one to hold his tongue, said Saturday in Kagoshima, “A party leadership election is an especially good opportunity to fight over policy. If one cannot speak without hesitation, is it an open people’s party?”

Writing at his blog, Nakagawa Hidenao approvingly cited a Sankei editorial that questioned whether the DPJ can truly be called democratic. He criticized DPJ backbenchers for their weakness in the face of Mr. Ozawa, for their fears that opposing Mr. Ozawa would harm their electoral prospects. (That might sound similar to my own argument — more in a moment — but I don’t begrudge their anti-Ozawa group their cowardice. They were being perfectly rational in weighing the consequences for their careers in challenging Mr. Ozawa.)

Finally, Yamauchi Koichi, the Koizumi child whose blog seems to shadow Mr. Nakagawa’s, declared that Mr. Noda’s decision marked “the beginning of the end of the DPJ.”

(Naturally they will also be criticizing coalition partner Komeito for the uncontested election it will be holding two days after the DPJ’s.)

As I’ve noted before, the crowing of LDP reformists like Messrs. Nakagawa and Yamauchi speaks more about their position within the LDP than the failings of the DPJ. Marginalized by the very infighting that Mr. Nakagawa praises as healthy for a political party, they are reduced to weak attempts to cut the DPJ down to size, to deprive it of reformist credentials in the hope that the public will look to the LDP for reform, as it did under Koizumi Junichiro.

The idea that the DPJ will suffer a blow to its reputation — at least a blow severe enough to hurt it at the polls come election time — is laughable; I doubt that the voting public will be distracted by such sophistry, especially with the economy going down the tubes. The next general election, despite the best efforts of LDP spinmeisters, will be about the LDP’s rule since 2005 (and before). It will not be a referendum on the DPJ’s fitness to govern.

MTC argues, in fact, that the DPJ dodged a bullet by not having a contested election in which the party’s platform from the 2007 upper house campaign would be picked apart piece by piece. MTC explains at length why Mr. Ozawa’s apparent reversion to baramaki seiji — a favorite slander of the aforementioned LDP politicians — should not be taken at face value.

“It is Ozawa’s intent to go back to the rural voters, the ones who voted for the Democrats in 2007 praying that the Democrats would bring the revival of special subsidies, tax cuts or government handouts, and say to them, ‘Sorry, as you know, I have argued long and hard for you to get the help you deserve but the b_____ds in the House of Representatives have turned down every one of my proposals. We need your votes to kick these b_____ds out of office.’

“Ozawa is guessing — and it is a reasonable guess — that he can go to the well twice with the same set of promises.”

I am in absolute agreement with MTC on his account of Mr. Ozawa’s designs. I think this is precisely what the DPJ leader has in mind, and what’s more, I think it will work: the battle for the twenty-nine single-member districts last summer was just a warmup for the campaign for lower house seats in the same prefectures, prefectures in which the DPJ has performed poorly in the past two general elections. Given just how little progress the LDP has made since its defeat last summer, there is good reason to believe that it will work again.

And so I accept MTC’s argument that a party election would have done more harm than good. But only slight harm, I think, especially since no candidate emerged until late in the summer. An abbreviated campaign, long after Mr. Ozawa consolidated the necessary support to win, would have been windowdressing, and little more. Mr. Noda might have scored a point or two, but he would not have been able to undermine the manifesto wholesale, as Mr. Maehara and others have hoped to do earlier in the summer.

Meanwhile, I still maintain that the cowardice of the DPJ’s young turks is part of the story of why Mr. Ozawa will be reelected uncontested next month. Perhaps cowardice is the wrong word. Extreme risk averseness? Mr. Maehara and others have good reason for not following through on their destructive path that would have turned the leadership election into outright civil war. There was little to gain from such a course. If somehow they were able to defeat Mr. Ozawa, the party that they would claim as spoils would likely be so broken that their victory would mean the inevitable end of the DPJ (pace Mr. Yamauchi, who thinks that not having an election is the beginning of the end for the DPJ). If Mr. Ozawa fended off their challenge, they would be finished within the party. Either way, a brutal campaign following upon Mr. Maehara’s bold rhetoric would lead to a dead end for the young turks. In the face of these circumstances, naturally they were collectively reluctant to take the final step.

MTC may be right that they were also swayed by the electoral consequences of a contested election. Perhaps Mr. Maehara became aware of the dangerous path he was on when LDP officials began praising him. But I think — and this is just a product of my basic assumptions — that they were first swayed by the personal consequences of a challenge to Mr. Ozawa. Not because of pressure from Mr. Ozawa himself (as argued by Jun Okumura): if the press narrative is to be believed, Mr. Ozawa gave nary a thought to the party election. While some DPJ members came out publicly on behalf of an uncontested election, Hatoyama Yukio praised some of the potential challengers and endorsed the idea of a contested election. He might have been acting differently in private, but the public message was designed to dial down the intensity in the event of a contested election, not stamp out the very idea of dissent.

The point is that Mr. Ozawa and the other party leaders ultimately have little to fear from the dissenters. Policy rifts continue to exist, but young turks in both the DPJ and the LDP appear to lack the willingness to reject their parties and go off on their own. Hence the proliferation of nonpartisan study groups, which it increasingly seems are not proto-parties but substitutes for the parties the young turks might form if they could do so with minimal risks.

Faced with a situation that could very well have resulted in their being forced to break with the DPJ, the party’s young turks have backed off, presumably saving their energy for a fight with better odds and in the meantime devoting their energy to study groups.

In the meantime, the party remains in the hands of the formidable Mr. Ozawa.

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