The liberals step into the breach

Watanabe Yoshimi is not relenting in threatening rebellion against the Aso government.

Speaking at a fundraising party on Monday evening, Mr. Watanabe speculated openly about scenarios for political realignment. Edano Yukio, a DPJ reformist, was in attendance and stated that if Mr. Watanbe decides to leave the LDP for the DPJ, he should be welcomed with open arms.

Mr. Watanabe’s three scenarios for realignment include (1) a franchise model, the creation of a new party bearing the LDP label (the Tokyo LDP, for example); (2) the amicable divorce model, freeing Mr. Watanabe to bargain with all possible partners; and (3) the “without means” model, jumping from the LDP without any guarantee of a successful landing.

It is unclear which scenario will come to pass, if any. Mr. Watanabe may be able to rely on the support of other young reformers, but it’s by no means a sure thing. The Koizumi children and their fifty-something older brothers and sisters have shown themselves to be remarkably timid. The lot of them have been waiting virtually since Koizumi Junichiro’s term as prime minister ended for someone to challenge the drift within the LDP. But even now, with Mr. Watanabe talking openly about challenging the government and leaving if the LDP they cannot make up their minds. Yamamoto Ichita has, for example, argued at his blog that Mr. Watanabe speaks only for himself — he does not speak for the reformists en masse. It may be that even Mr. Watanbe does not know what he wants to do. Sankei suggests that he may be driven as much by resentment at having been bounced from the second Fukuda cabinet at then-LDP secretary general Aso’s urging as by policy disagreements with Mr. Aso. As such, it remains an open question whether he has the courage to act. He may yet tell himself that he has too much to lose from breaking with the LDP (although if he keeps talking he may lose more reputationally from speaking openly about challenging the government only to back down).

In the meantime, an older generation is also speaking of realignment, namely those old allies of Mr. Koizumi, Kato Koichi and Yamasaki Taku. The self-styled liberals have little to lose from publicly challenging the Aso government and threatening to leave the party. Both are their own men, insofar as LDP members are capable of being independent. Mr. Kato, having left politics for several years after being accused of corruption, is not affiliated with any faction and is something of an outsider within the LDP. Mr. Yamasaki is a faction chief, but as a liberal (and an advocate of normalization with North Korea), he is increasingly out of place within the LDP. Little surprise then that both men have been active in discussing a possible realignment. The latest is that Mr. Yamasaki appeared on TV Monday to argue for a new party drawing members from both the LDP and the DPJ that will be able to govern following the next general election.

I would argue that neither Mr. Kato nor Mr. Yamasaki is in a position to be the catalyst for a realignment. The problem with being independent is that there are few guarantees that anyone would follow them out of the LDP. Such is the paradox facing the LDP’s malcontents today. A rebellion by Mr. Watanabe is meaningfuly precisely because as a promising future leader, a former cabinet minister, and an LDP princeling he has something to lose by rebelling against Mr. Aso and the party establishment. But for those same reasons he might ultimately decided not to rebel, especially if he is unable to rely on his fellow reformists for support.

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