The DPJ and PNP draw closer

Pushing the DPJ to the headlines again for the first time since Prime Minister Fukuda resigned at the start of September, the Democratic Party of Japan and the People’s New Party are reportedly close to an agreement to merge. Ozawa Ichiro met with his counterpart Watanuki Tamisuke Tuesday to discuss a merger, and indicated to Mr. Watanuki that he is willing to include a plank in the DPJ manifesto calling for a freeze in the planned sale of government-held shares of the composite companies of the Japan Post group.

The PNP, you may recall, is a product of the 2005 postal reform battle, created when Koizumi Junichiro ousted the postal rebels and dispatched his “assassins” to deprive them of their seats in the 2005 general election, with only some success.

The party has been considerably less visible in the years following its creation, although as a partner of the DPJ its four upper house members are critical to maintaining the opposition’s control of the upper house.

Sankei reports that the DPJ executives have conferred and have officially proposed a union to the microparty, which is favorably disposed to the idea. It is less clear what DPJ backbenchers and the party rank-and-file think, but it looks like the DPJ’s latest merger is a done deal. (One merger closer to a two-party system?) (This is also yet another blow to Hiranuma Takeo’s plans for a new conservative party, the chimera that had everyone talks just under a year ago. The impending election of Aso Taro will be another.)

I can think of a number of theories for why Mr. Ozawa opted to do this, and opted to do this now.

One, this has proved a good way to put the DPJ back in the headlines, although the financial crisis has effectively taken pushed the LDP and the DPJ aside for the time being.

Two, it enables Mr. Ozawa to cement his populist credentials among elderly, rural voters. A glance at the PNP’s policy statements shows a party very much in tune with Mr. Ozawa’s approach of the past several years: criticism of “market fundamentalism” and an economy in which the strong devour the weak, criticism of the Koizumi theatrical politics that led to the party’s creation in the first place, and support for all manner of traditional LDP supporters (farmers, small- and mid-sized businesses, etc.). With Aso Taro’s copying Ozawa Ichiro’s approach, Mr. Ozawa may be upping his commitment to a populist pitch to voters in stagnant rural districts to head off Mr. Aso before he takes over officially (as seems certain).

A third, related theory is that Mr. Ozawa did this because he could. I can imagine that the DPJ’s young turks are dreading having to defend this alliance to their urban constituents, seeing as how this is literally a merger with the newly former LDP. But after having effectively stared down all potential rivals, Mr. Ozawa may have calculated — correctly in my view — that he can get away with quite a lot; the young turks will not defect.

Fourth, and again related to DPJ internal dynamics, Mr. Ozawa may perceive this as a way to bolster his position in the party. The PNP may not be numerous, but they bring Mr. Ozawa some reinforcements in his battle to make the case that his approach to the next general election is correct, that the election will be won or lost in constituencies that have long supported the LDP.

Lastly, Mr. Ozawa may actually share the PNP’s beliefs.

These theories are not mutually exclusive, and not one explanation may be correct. And the merger may ultimately not make a difference in the general election, seeing as how it merely reinforces Mr. Ozawa’s approach. It does make clear, however, that Japan has come a long way from September 2005. Structural reform is dead. If Mr. Aso is elected, the LDP and the DPJ will be battling over who can promise the more convincing plan to revitalize rural areas, presumably through infusions of public funds.

One thought on “The DPJ and PNP draw closer

  1. Nice post. I\’m not sure structural reform is dead, however. It might be in a coma for a while, maybe even years, but it must happen eventually, even if the party system has to blow up again first.That Ozawa is embracing the postal rebels is fascinating. When the DPJ opposed the reforms, their (unsuccessful) argument was that they didn\’t go far enough. So while they voted with the postal rebels it was, ostensibly, for opposite reasons. A merger can only mean one of two things: short-term opportunism aimed at rural voters, as you say, or that both big parties are now split between reform and anti-reform groups, with the latter temporarily in ascendance and a party reorganization not far off.


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