Watanabe to LDP: I’m outta here

It appears that Watanabe Yoshimi is nearing a decision regarding his future in the LDP. With the second stimulus package scheduled to come to a vote on January 13, Mr. Watanabe could leave the LDP in a matter of days.

Mr. Watanabe appears to be working hard to exacerbate tensions with the LDP. Not surprisingly, the prime minister rejected his demands regarding the timing of a general election and administrative reform, with the LDP mocking them as reflective of Mr. Watanabe’s “heroic delusions.” Not that it was ever likely that the prime minister would cave to the demands of a discontent backbencher.

Mr. Watanabe has also been going after the prime minister on the question of administrative reform. He expressed his dissatisfaction with Mr. Aso’s response to a question in Thursday’s Diet proceedings, suggesting that he has “given up hope” in the possibility of Mr. Aso’s eliminating the practice of amakudari. Mr. Watanabe plans to question Mr. Aso directly in Diet proceedings on Friday on the same matter, which appears like a prelude to a vote by Mr. Watanabe against the second stimulus package on Tuesday.

All of this is to be expected. Mr. Watanabe has made it nearly impossible to remain in the party and have any measure of influence: better a flight to the wilderness than internal exile. His exodus may, however, be a lonely one. None of his fellow reformists have stood up to be counted with him. For all their opposition, none has publicly stated his or her intention vote against the stimulus package. The LDP is taking seriously the threat of rebellion on Tuesday — Asahi reports that the party is trying to get every member to commit to voting for the supplemental budget, along with trying to sell the plan to a wary public — but it seems unlikely that Mr. Watanabe will have company if he decides to oppose the bill.

For an example of the attitude of Mr. Watanabe’s fellow reformists, see this blog post by first-termer Yamauchi Koichi, in which Mr. Yamauchi expresses his agreement with Mr. Watanabe’s policy ideas, but indicates that he will not take the step of leaving the party, preferring instead to continue to work on improving the LDP from within. This attitude seems to be shared by Yamamoto Ichita, who at the same time that Mr. Watanabe has drifted further into rebellion, has created yet another study group opposing some dimension of the government’s agenda, in this case the plan to raise the consumption tax in three years’ time. Mr. Yamauchi is one of eight members of the new study group. For all the fanfare that surrounds some of these groups, I’m not certain that they accomplish anything, and as Mr. Watanabe is learning, they apparently do little to build solidarity among ideological compatriots. (Indeed, in the midst of all this, Mr. Watanabe just joined a study group with former Koizumi lieutenant Takebe Tsutomu.)

So the question remains then as to what will happen when he leaves the party. The DPJ is reportedly reaching out to Mr. Watanabe, but whether he will take the opposition party’s hand is unknown. Presumably he won’t do so without some position of prominence being given in return.

The result is that if and when Mr. Watanabe votes against the government’s stimulus package Tuesday, the Japanese political system will step into the unknown. Mr. Watanabe’s leaving could be the first domino of a political realignment or it could be a futile, isolated step that marks the end of Mr. Watanabe’s career.

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