For the moment the DPJ is no closer to gaining a majority in the upper house before the election that will likely be held in July.
But the exit of these LDP UH members provides a glimpse into the LDP’s struggles to change following its defeat in August.
Political parties, like all complex organizations embedded in fluctuating, unpredictable environments, must achieve some balance between change and inertia. Successful — and long-lived — parties may well be characterized by higher degrees of inertia, changing policies, organizational structure, or party rules only when some external shock requires adaptation. It may be the case, however, that the more successful a party is, the less able it is able to adapt when its external environment changes.
The LDP has been in an almost continuous state of crisis since the late 1980s, starting with the Recruit and Sagawa Kyubin scandals and the Ozawa rebellion that led to the LDP’s going into opposition for the first time. Returning to power in 1994 did not dull the sense of crisis in the LDP. We cannot understand the rise of Koizumi Junichiro without appreciating the backdrop of crisis. But returning to power, even in cooperation with a series of coalition partners, strengthened the influence of inertial forces within the LDP even as the external circumstances (stagnant economy, changing demographics, the decline of the countryside, etc.) continued to evolve, demanding that the party change too. The battle between reformists and the old guard, which came to a head in the debate over postal privatization, reflects the competing forces present in all large organizations — and is not dissimilar from the experiences of other political parties.
Having failed to reform in power, the LDP has been given another opportunity to reform out of power. Judging by the departure of the three upper house members, who expressed their dissatisfaction with the party leadership’s reform efforts when they notified the party of their decisions, the LDP is still struggling to change in significant ways. Masuzoe Yoichi, the former minister of health, labor, and welfare, has also criticized the party’s leadership: in a speech last Tuesday Masuzoe said that the LDP needed a “dictatorial leader exceeding [the DPJ’s] Mr. Ozawa.” He said that if he were party leader, he would strengthen the party’s hands in nominating candidates, bringing new candidates in and preventing them from running in their home districts (like the DPJ, Masuzoe is borrowing from British politics). He stressed that the party does not need to be resuscitated — it needs to be reborn.
New rules for selecting candidates, new leadership institutions, new procedures for choosing leaders, new policies, even a new name: these are the kinds of changes that we should expect political parties to consider in the aftermath of a considerable defeat. And these are precisely the kinds of changes that the LDP under Tanigaki Sadakazu has failed to undertake. Earlier this month, a party committee debated and ultimately rejected a proposal to change the LDP’s name. More comprehensive reforms have not been forthcoming. Talk of killing the LDP’s factions, which continue to linger on despite having lost much of their power, seems to have ceased. The party has introduced some changes into how it picks its leader: in the party election in September the party’s prefectural chapters wielded more votes than in the past, but this change was more a matter of necessity due to the party’s vastly reduced Diet caucus than a matter of conviction. Post-election talk of introducing a DPJ-style shadow cabinet that would centralize the party’s policymaking functions went nowhere. In its most important functions the party president is no stronger now than before the LDP’s defeat. And there are few signs that party has a plan for introducing the changes discussed by Masuzoe or other innovations derived from the DPJ’s experience in opposition.
Why has the LDP thus far been so reluctant to change, or even to discuss change?
The LDP’s reluctance to introduce institutional and policy changes may not be all that atypical. In fact, in keeping with the importance of inertia for parties and organizations, it may take a series of shocks rather than a single shock for a party to overcome its natural resistance to change. After all, embracing inertia — retrenchment, in a word — can be a rational strategy for a party recovering from a major shock, a means of limiting the extent of post-defeat chaos. Tanigaki’s election as LDP president is an effect of this tendency, and has also served to deepen its roots within the party. While Tanigaki had a reputation as a liberal prior to his election, it seems that his devotion to the LDP establishment outweighs even his liberal tendencies. His actions since his election suggest that Tanigaki is a proponent of the old guard’s thinking: he has silenced talk of radical reforms, spoken on behalf of the factions, and adopted a political strategy that prioritizes political expediency (calling for Hatoyama to resign immediately and a snap election) over the long-term survival of the LDP. Unlike Masuzoe’s position, which stresses the importance of significant reforms as critical for the medium- and long-term survival of the LDP, Tanigaki’s position seems to be that returning to power as soon as possible trumps party reform. In other words, had the LDP selected a different leader — Kono Taro, for example — it is likely that the LDP would be debating and embracing different policies than under Tanigaki.
Tanigaki’s tendency to retrench rather than reform also reflects the balance of power within the LDP after the general election, which, as I noted the day after the election, is skewed towards older party members who have held numerous cabinet and party leadership posts. The composition of the LDP’s members reinforces the power of inertia present in all large organizations.
As Masuzoe’s speech last week suggests, leadership is critical — but as the aftermath of the Koizumi government suggests, it is not enough. Without control of the party leadership, the LDP’s reformists waned once Koizumi left office. Reformists like Masuzoe will have to remake the party both in Tokyo and at the grassroots. They will have to fight to open the nominating process to new candidates, while at the same time working at party headquarters to centralize party governance much as Ozawa made the DPJ a far more centralized and disciplined party than it had been previously. But it may take more defeats in national and local elections before the reformists are able to build a durable coalition in favor of significant party change. Fortunately for the reformists, given that the LDP’s support has remained abysmal even as the Hatoyama government’s approval rating has fallen, more defeats (and defections) may be in the offing.
For the moment, however, there may be little the reformists can do other than float proposals for party change and work with party rank-and-file in the hope of building support for reform from the bottom up. Sooner or later, the DPJ will overreach and need another spell in opposition. I hope for Japan’s sake that when it does overreach the LDP — or an LDP successor — is ready to govern. As of now, the LDP is still a long way from becoming that party.