Kawakatsu Heita, the DPJ-backed candidate in the Shizuoka gubernatorial election, defeated Sakamoto Yukiko, the LDP- and Komeitō-backed candidate, on Sunday, this despite a split in the DPJ vote in Shizuoka. The DPJ, of course, feels the wind at its back as it looks to Sunday’s Tokyo assembly elections. Polls in advance of the Tokyo vote show that the DPJ may well succeed in becoming the largest party in the Tokyo assembly. Mainichi has the DPJ leading the LDP 26% to 13%, another 6% for Komeitō, and 43% undecided. But 55% of respondents said they would consider using their vote to judge the Asō government, which provides a hint to how those 43% might vote Sunday. Yomiuri finds that the DPJ enjoys a similar lead over the LDP, 29.4% to 16.9%, with another 5.1% for Komeitō. Asahi‘s poll also found undecideds leaning to the DPJ.
The DPJ has every reason to feel that its time has come.
Meanwhile, Asō, in Yomiuri‘s words, stands at the edge of a cliff. The prime minister, reacting to the news, said that the Shizuoka defeat does not mean that the LDP will lose in Tokyo Sunday — and once again stressed that regional elections have no import for national politics. The Shizuoka branch of the LDP thinks differently, blaming the defeat on the anti-government mood growing throughout Japan. What will be his excuse if the LDP and Komeitō lose Sunday? How many regional elections does the government have to lose before it has an impact on national politics? How many times do the voters have to opt for DPJ-backed candidates before the government will recognize these votes as directed at the LDP-Komeitō coalition? Perhaps Asō’s excuse for an LDP defeat in Tokyo will be on account of his absence from the campaign trail, as he is now in Italy for the G8. (Although, come to think of it, his absence may give a bump to LDP candidates…)
We are, blow by blow, witnessing the end of LDP rule. The truce that was supposedly declared between the reformists and the traditionalists was remarkably short-lived: Nakagawa Hidenao was on TV Sunday calling once again for Asō’s resignation. Resigning, Nakagawa maintains, is the honorable thing to do. Honor? What honor is there for the LDP in pushing Asō out of the way and elevating a new leader just in time to contest an election?
I think that Nakagawa and the reformists are increasingly beginning to recognize the position they are in: even with a change of leader their position within the LDP is likely to be greatly diminished. There are simply too many Koizumi children holding vulnerable seats (and often facing the DPJ candidates they bested in 2005, meaning that they are facing experienced challengers.) If they manage to influence the drafting to the manifesto, however, and the LDP manages to somehow scratch out a victory, the manifesto becomes a means to hold the LDP leadership accountable, even if the leadership does not come from the ranks of the reformists.
But more than that, the reformists are facing a situation in which they will lack bargaining power with the DPJ should they decide to leave the LDP after the election. If the DPJ wins a majority, it will have little need for LDP defectors. It presumably won’t spurn them if they want to join the DPJ, but the defectors won’t receive any special treatment from the DPJ. (I can imagine, though, that some DPJ members would be particularly reluctant to let a raft of LDP defectors join the party, thereby strengthening the Maehara group.)
Accordingly, it makes good political sense for the reformists to do what they can to improve the LDP’s chances in the general election. Even if the LDP doesn’t win, a better-than-expected LDP performance that deprives the DPJ of a majority gives the reformists bargaining power in case they decide to break loose from the LDP. I don’t doubt that the reformists think they are sincere about changing the LDP, but how long will they continue to fight a losing struggle within the party? To what extent will they join with LDP members like Yosano Kaoru, who criticized the DPJ’s manifesto as “virtually criminal” in its neglect of reality? If the reformists go to far in their criticism of the DPJ — and Nakagawa has certainly strayed in this direction already — they will make it that much harder to join the DPJ should they find the LDP inhospitable after an election.
But I think it is time for the reformists to drop the pretense that the way to change Japan is to change the LDP. Maybe Koizumi had it backwards: change Japan, change the LDP. In other words, it may take another party — for now the DPJ — to implement the political, economic, and administrative reforms that the LDP failed to enact, and in doing so the LDP will change as well in response to the new political environment.