The value of the talk was in providing information about how the new party views its relationships with the LDP and the DPJ.
About the LDP, Watanabe was unambiguous: “From the start,” Watanabe said, “I have said that this party will not serve as a complementary party to the LDP.” The YP, like the DPJ, stands for seiken kotai, for regime change. But Asao stressed that regime change cannot just be about changing the party in power. It must be about changing how Japan is governed. (I made the same point in my own remarks at the FCCJ last week.)
In other words, the YP’s hope is that it will be in a position to serve as the DPJ’s conscience, an idealistic voice reminding the DPJ of the importance of genuine regime change. When asked, Watanabe could not deny the fundamental similarity between the DPJ’s and the YP’s manifestos — available here — but said that the devil’s in the details, that the DPJ’s proposals are vaguer, that the DPJ depends, for example, on union support and so cannot go as far as the YP. But the fundamental aims are the same. The YP wants fundamental administrative reform, drastic changes to how public money is spent, regional decentralization, reconstruction of the social safety net, and changes to Japan’s economic model to ensure that the country has the money to pay for social security. Like the DPJ, the YP reaffirms the importance of the US-Japan alliance, but also wants an “equal” alliance — and says, in a phrase that I think exemplifies what the DPJ wants to do in the alliance, that Japan should “say what must be said and demand that which should be demanded.” It also emphasizes a foreign policy of “Japan at Asia’s center,” echoing Hatoyama Yukio’s call for greater economic cooperation in Asia.
Not surprisingly, given the similarities between the manifestos, Watanabe stressed that the YP is open to a post-election coalition with the DPJ.
There is much to like in the YP’s manifesto, but I find the party’s idealism a bit frustrating. It is all too easy for a party fielding fifteen candidates to talk about eliminating this and ending that and stress that it won’t do any pork-barrel spending. But the DPJ is trying to win a majority nationwide — the act of cobbling together enough support to win a majority means that compromises are inevitable. Is there a democracy in the world, after all, that is free from pork-barrel spending in one form or another? The question isn’t completely eliminating waste but making government transparent, so the public is in a position to judge whether its money is being wasted and punish elected officials who go to far in wasting public money. This, of course, is the value of the DPJ’s agricultural income support program, for example, which would make government support more transparent than the byzantine system of subsidies in place today. The same goes for amakudari, Watanabe’s bete noire — it is much easier for a party to call for outright ban to a practice like this when the chances are against its ever being in a position to do something about it. (Although, to the YP’s credit, its manifesto includes a call for ending the practice of encouraging bureaucrats to retire early, which might actually do some good in limiting the demand for amakudari positions.)
Of course, whether the YP will be able to serve as the DPJ’s conscience will depend entirely on how will the DPJ performs in the general election. Naturally the best possible outcome for the YP is the DPJ’s depending on it to wield a majority in the House of Representatives — but this scenario strikes me as highly unlikely. Meanwhile, should the DPJ win a majority of its own, the YP’s voice can be easily ignored. It would be a shame if this group’s ideas were completely ignored, but perhaps it is inevitable that the YP will be absorbed by the DPJ. Much as it is difficult to see why anyone would vote for Hiranuma Takeo’s conservative “third pole” when they can vote for the LDP, so it is difficult to see why voters would vote for the YP when they can vote for the DPJ. If the DPJ manages to perform as well in the election as some have suggested, Watanabe, Asao, and company may be able to do more good within the DPJ than as a small party outside the DPJ.