The LDP did opt to censure him. According to Asahi, the LDP has “admonished” Mr. Watanabe, admonishment being the second lightest of the LDP’s punishments for disobedient party members. Nikai Toshihiro, head of the LDP’s general affairs council, argued that Mr. Watanabe should be expelled from the party, but his proposal was rejected.
In a press conference after the vote, Mr. Watanabe made clear that his vote is not a prelude to a break with the LDP and the formation of a new party. He claimed that he acted alone, not bothering to consult with his fellows. Later in the press conference, he spelled out his credo: “…Party before faction, state and people before party. This is the starting point for a member of the Diet.” It seems that Mr. Watanabe was acting in defense of Japanese democracy; he views a general election at this juncture as essential to making progress in solving the problems that plague the Japanese polity. A simple act, but considering that none of his colleagues joined him, an act that may have taken more courage than meets the eye. Despite the bold talk from other reformists, not one did anything more than offer tepid “understanding” of Mr. Watanabe’s vote. Naturally his vote garnered praise from the DPJ — Hatoyama Yukio made a congratulatory phone call — which hopes to draw LDP rebels away from the party before a general election. Ozawa Ichiro suggested that if Mr. Watanabe is willing to leave the party, he will discuss electoral cooperation with him. (Not a particularly meaningful offer, I think: there is a reason that the DPJ has yet to pick a candidate to run against Mr. Watanabe in Tochigi-3, namely that Mr. Watanabe has been quite successful in past elections.)
This will not be last we hear of Mr. Watanabe. By giving him a light slap on the wrist, the LDP has ensured that Mr. Watanabe will defy the government again at his next opportunity. Mr. Watanabe dared the party to expel him, but it refused, perhaps out of fear that booting the rebel reformist could finally open the eyes of his colleagues that the party has no place for them. Of course, that may be too much to expect. The LDP, terrified that Mr. Watanabe will encourage others to follow him, acted quickly and softly in the hope of quieting talk of rebellion and not making Mr. Watanabe out to be a martyr. Time will tell whether the party’s response will succeed. Mr. Watanabe said in an appearance on TV Asahi Thursday that there is the possibility of further defiance of the government when the second stimulus package comes to a vote next year.
Journalist Uesugi Takashi suggests that there is little danger of the bill’s being rejected because the controversial portion — a fixed income and residential tax cut included to assuage Komeito — is not a separate bill but simply part of the larger supplemental budget bill (hence the DPJ’s calling for the controversial portion to be submitted as a separate bill). Uesugi instead sees another battle over the plan to move highway funds to the general fund as the critical point when LDP reformists may decide to break with the party.
For now it is simply impossible to predict whether Mr. Watanabe will be able to gather enough rebels to deprive the government of its supermajority. It appears that Nakagawa Hidenao’s argument that there shall be no moves towards realignment before a general election has won the day in reformist circles.
Nevertheless, I give Mr. Watanabe tremendous credit for standing up against the government. In what was, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, a low, dishonest year, Mr. Watanabe has provided a glimmer of hope that there might be a leader in either party capable of rising above the pusillanimity that has characterized the behavior of all too many leading Japanese politicians over the past year.