After months of building, it appears that the dissolution of the LDP may finally be in motion.
The LDP can be roughly divided into three broad groupings, with some overlap: conservatives, clientelists, and Koizumians. I provided an outline of these various divisions in an article published at the Far Eastern Economic Review‘s website in October, in which I argued that “it is best to think of the contemporary LDP as divided not by faction or policy group, but by broad ideological ‘tendencies.'” The members of these groups have largely distinct visions for how Japan should be governed and how the LDP should wield power (with some overlap, especially on foreign policy), and it is increasingly difficult to see how these tendencies can inhabit the same party. Whereas the goal of keeping the LDP in power might have once served to unite various LDP groups — the party has, after all, always been divided along a number of fault lines — this goal is no longer sufficient to unify the party, perhaps in part because power is no longer shared evenly throughout the party. Over the past seven years, one tendency or another has been marginalized within the party. The Koizumi government was essentially a coalition of the conservatives and Koizumians to wage war on the clientelists, culminating in the fight over postal privatization. The Abe government rested on an uneasy truce among the three groups, with the Koizumians gradually being marginalized as his government proceeded. The Fukuda government saw both the conservatives and the Koizumians marginalized, resting largely on the power of party elders who still aim to keep the LDP in power and constitute a power bloc in their own right. By the end of the Fukuda government, the conservatives had regained some of their strength, taking important positions in the second Fukuda government before electing Mr. Aso with a coalition of conservatives, clientelists, and party elders. The Koizumians, marginalized virtually since Mr. Koizumi left office, have hinted at forming their own party (see this thread), but have done little more than talk.
Until now: Watanabe Yoshimi, a leading Koizumian and adminstrative reform minister under Messrs. Abe and Fukuda, appeared on TV Asahi Tuesday and suggested that he and his reformist colleagues could be prepared to leave the LDP and form their own party. Previously talk of a Koizumian party was fed more by media speculation about various study groups formed by reformists — the latest being Nakagawa Hidenao’s new study group on social security — rather than by explicit threats by reformers to leave and form their own party. It’s possible that Mr. Watanabe is bluffing. The party leadership certainly thinks he is. The clientelists, through the vehicle of the party’s general council, is pressing for a three-year freeze in the the Koizumi government’s 2006 plan to cut public works spending by three percent compared to the previous year and restrict the growth in social security entitlement payments. If the clientelists win, it may be the final indicator that the Koizumians are no longer welcome in the LDP, the beginning of the LDP’s existence as a rump party of conservatives and clientelists.
The Asahi article suggests that Mr. Nakagawa — and Yosano Kaoru, who, as the leading “fiscal reconstructionst” is in some sense a tendency of his own — may yet have a role to play in destroying the LDP as it exists today, as they have links with each other and across the aisle to Ozawa Ichiro and former DPJ leader Maehara Seiji. The LDP’s liberals (the LDP’s truly marginalized group), namely Kato Koichi and Yamasaki Taku, may also be making their preparations to defect from the LDP.
Little wonder that Mr. Ozawa has now proposed a plan that is transparently an attempt to break up the LDP, calling for an all-party coalition government to govern until an election can be held (provided Mr. Aso resigns); in fact, Mr. Ozawa’s scheme is so transparent I have a hard time believing anyone in the government will buy it. LDP members may be discontent with Mr. Aso, but that does not mean that they will run to embrace Mr. Ozawa.
But the point is that the Koizumians may finally be ready to fight back against their marginalization in the LDP by threatening the Aso government with defection (and the consequent destruction of the government’s supermajority). They may be bluffing or not as eager as Mr. Watanabe to depart — Mr. Nakagawa is doing all he can to dampen rumors that he is moving against the prime minister — but the threat has been made. Will the LDP do anything to attempt to retain them?
If it doesn’t, will the LDP as it exists today survive to contest the next general election?