Masuzoe threatens the LDP

In a press conference at LDP headquarters Tuesday, Masuzoe Yoichi, the upper house member and former cabinet minister who is one of a handful of politicians respected by the public, said that while he will try to do what he can within the LDP, he said that his ultimate aim is a political realignment — and that he would not rule out any possibilities, including leaving the LDP to form his own party.

In the meantime, he is, in the best LDP tradition, forming a study group that will no doubt serve as a focal point for his reform movement.

Masuzoe has, of course, already criticized LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu for his ineffectual leadership. The question, however, is what Masuzoe can do to realize a political realignment.

To do so he would have to be able to draw defectors away from both the LDP and the DPJ. Doing the latter will be difficult: Ozawa Ichiro has enough carrots and sticks at his disposal to ensure that the DPJ’s backbenchers won’t stray. Seeing as how the backbenchers thus far have little reason to defect for policy reasons, it is hard to see how Masuzoe could entice DPJ defectors. Which leaves the LDP. While Masuzoe is popular with the public and was a welcome presence on “two-shot” campaign posters for LDP candidates last summer, it is unclear just how much support he has within the LDP. He has prided himself on his independence, which has been good for his public image but bad for his ability to organize LDP members in a reform movement.

Given the current circumstances, a Masuzoe movement could wind up as little different from Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party, which has been irrelevant since the Hatoyama government took power. And as I’ve previously discussed, reform within the LDP appears to be at a standstill. Tanigaki welcomed the New Year by calling for the Hatoyama government to resign, dissolve the House of Representatives, and call a snap election. (Seems a bit farcical for the LDP to challenge the DPJ on corruption.)

Reforming the LDP — or, alternatively, building a second major political party — will not be simply a matter of changing the party affiliations of politicians in Tokyo. Ozawa spent the 1990s trying to build a second major party in Tokyo and failed. Masuzoe will have to build a movement from the ground up, recruiting new candidates (preferably ones who are not hereditary politicians), crafting new policies that critique the DPJ’s approach to public problems while offer constructive proposals, and genuinely starting a new style of politics. The DPJ itself is trapped between a new style of politics and the old way of politics, as Hatoyama’s and Ozawa’s scandals suggest. The DPJ’s campaign over the summer pointed the way to a new, less personalistic style of politics in which political parties build and maintain national brands and in which national party leaders are capable of disciplining backbenchers and keeping them on message.

The biggest problem for Masuzoe may be policy. In the past I’ve referred to his way of thinking as “humane reformism.” A critic of Koizumi Junichiro’s populism, Masuzoe has, like the DPJ, stressed a focus on improving health and welfare services. I have a hard time seeing how the ideas expressed here, for example, are different from the ideas of Nagatsuma Akira’s, Masuzoe’s successor as minister of health, labor, and welfare. Like other rich democracies, political competition in Japan is increasingly based on valence issues, issues that the public is nearly uniformly opposed to or in favor of, perhaps with the exception of foreign policy. On the issues of greatest concern to voters, the two parties have either already converged or will converge to a narrow range, leaving the parties to compete in terms on issues like corruption, leadership, and the ability to follow through on its proposals. If the DPJ’s reforms of the policymaking process stick, this last issue will be crucial. The flip side of the DPJ’s introduction of political leadership is that it will be harder to blame the bureaucrats.

Given these constraints, Masuzoe may be better off staying in the LDP, getting it to take his ideas seriously, develop an LDP brand that can challenge the DPJ’s on the issues voters are most concerned about, and change how the LDP practices politics so that the LDP can have at least some credibility when it challenges the DPJ on corruption. He is right to look the DPJ, which succeeded in part because it was more top-down and less hereditary than the LDP.

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