The dissidents depart

In an unexpected but not wholly surprising move, the DPJ’s upper-house dissidents will announce Thursday that they’re leaving the DPJ to form their own party, citing the DPJ’s failure to put the people before politics as the reason for their departure.

The rebels — Watanabe Hideo and Oe Yasuhiro (both representatives from the DPJ national PR list) — infamously voted with the government on its plans for road construction and the temporary gasoline tax. They also opposed the DPJ’s position on the Bank of Japan succession, and Mr. Oe abstained from the vote on the upper house’s censure motion of Prime Minister Fukuda, citing poor health. (They will also, it seems, take Himei Yumiko, a first-term upper house member from Okayama from the DPJ too.)

In short, these two members opted for the Lieberman approach, nominally members of the DPJ who helped prop up opposition control of the upper house, but opposed the DPJ on every important issue of the ordinary Diet session.

The problem is that both Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Oe owe their political careers to the DPJ, seeing as how they were elected on the national list. As MTC asked when they voted against the government, “Can one walk out with a proportional seat? Or leave with it under one’s arm after being expelled from the party?”

Apparently they can, and suffer no consequence for their desertion. The DPJ executive is reportedly trying to persuade them to stay in the party, in fact.

However, seeing as how they already decided to support the government on important matters and seeing as how the new party will number a total of five (two independents in addition to the three deserters), Messrs. Watanabe and Mr. Oe will be quickly forgotten. The DPJ is still the largest party in the upper house, and the caucus has been cleansed of two members who made very clear that they had little interest in having “DPJ” after their names.

This is another sign, however, of just how little power the DPJ has over its more willful members.

In fact, another willful DPJ member was flaunting his independence Wednesday. Maehara Seiji, the hawkish former party leader who made a big show of criticizing Ozawa Ichiro’s leadership and emphasizing the need for a contested election earlier in the summer before backing down, spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club. He reiterated the importance of an electoral challenge to Mr. Ozawa in next month’s leadership election, and blamed himself for failing to play “a coordinating role.” He hardly sounds like someone who has come to acknowledge the wisdom of uniting in preparation for a general election. He also emphasized the need for a substantial Japanese contribution in Afghanistan, a proposal that is unlikely to receive an enthuasiastic response from his party (although who knows what Mr. Ozawa is thinking this year on Afghanistan).

The DPJ shouldn’t overreact to the independence of members like Mr. Maehara. Their independence shows that the idea of Mr. Ozawa’s “dictatorial” control of the DPJ is mostly a myth. There’s little the party executive can do anyway. Better off letting the young turks speak their minds instead of cornering them and forcing them to choose between staying in the party, subdued or leaving to form their own party or joint the LDP.

UPDATE: The new micro-party is called the “Reform Club.”

Thinking more about this, I can’t help but wonder how this happened. In Mr. Watanabe’s case, it seems that his was only the slightest of attachments to the DPJ. A six-term lower house member who had served as a secretary to Nakasone Yasuhiro and postal minister, he lost his seat to Tanaka Makiko and was cast adrift, winding up as a Liberal Party PR candidate in the 1998 upper house election. Mr. Watanabe apparently nurses a grudge against Mr. Ozawa dating from the merger between the Liberal Party and the DPJ, after which Mr. Ozawa failed to support Mr. Watanabe in the 2004 upper house election. Mr. Oe apparently nurses a similar grudge against Mr. Ozawa, and would not be out of place in the LDP’s “True Conservative Study Group.”

In short, the Reform Club is an overdue consequence of the merger between the DPJ and the more conservative Liberal Party. Why Mr. Ozawa tolerated their presence for long is the question? I can understand that once Mr. Watanabe won his seat in 2004 there was little Mr. Ozawa could do about him. But how did Mr. Oe find a place on the party list last year? Yes, he had been elected on the Liberal list in 2001, but given his hostility — which presumably existed prior to July 2007 — couldn’t he have been dropped? Was the DPJ that desperate for experienced candidates that it would take whoever it could find who had political experience? If so, I hope Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ have learned their lesson.

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