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Background to the DPJ's ongoing counter-reformation

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Naoto Kan marks the name of a winning candidate back in 2003. (Photo: Getty)

In Brief

Prime Minister Kan Naoto has over a weekend revamped the line up of main executives of Democratic Party of Japan and the ministers of the Cabinet.

From the look of the new administration and speculation printed in the nation's newspapers, it is seems the DPJ is undertaking a massive shift away from the course it has been following since 2005.

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When Kan and former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio founded the DPJ in 1996, the party’s core faith was that Japan suffered from an excess of government spending on slow growth or even loss-making endeavours. The key to reviving Japan’s health was the removal of the control of spending from bureaucrats (who were supposedly using the budget compilation process to featherbed organizations and industries that would supply them with sinecures following their formal retirement from government service) and assaults on the system of subsidies and supports for industries and activities (agriculture, construction, package delivery) with close ties to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Under the classic DPJ paradigm, government would have a limited role in directing the economy, with the focus of policy on the cutting away of the relations of economic dependency. The goal was a more open, failure-tolerant structure, where a social safety net would catch those falling out of those industries undergoing shrinkage.

Two major events post-2000 forced the party to junk this policy framework. The first was the wholesale larceny of the party’s ideas by Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who ran against the traditional policies of his own party, the LDP, promising changes largely similar to the those proposed by the DPJ.

The second was the landslide loss in the 2005 House of Representatives election, where a glum Okada Katsuya seemed to be campaigning on the slogans of ‘no fun anymore, suffering for everyone.’ Against improbable optimism of Koizumi, Okada’s grim warnings of disaster were electoral poison. Unsurprisingly, the DPJ fell flat on its face, getting wiped out in urban and suburban districts, its supposed impregnable electoral fortresses.

Rather than switching to a Koizumi-like bon vivant with a taste for the spotlight, the DPJ opted, after the brief and painful attempt to replace one young, super- serious policy specialist (Okada) with an even younger, super-serious policy specialist (Maehara Seiji), to give control of the rudder to Ozawa Ichiro.

It was to be a fateful choice. Like Koizumi, Ozawa has a flair for the irresponsible, high-flow promise serving a highly realistic political goal. Unlike Koizumi, Ozawa is disdainful of the press, preferring build his political machine of out the knitting together of a thousand mutually exclusive promises to a thousand different interest groups. Recruiting local worthies to his cause through patient courtship, he built up a large cohort of attractive candidates, persons who were would nevertheless remain reliant on him for their political smarts.

Ozawa’s coalition building and election tactics were in the finest LDP tradition, at least its Tanaka-Takeshita faction party. Under Koizumi the LDP had abandoned its traditional method of focused pandering to interest groups in favour of a media-driven presidential and national mode of rule. As the LDP set about ‘modernising’ itself, Ozawa moved into the ensuing political vaccuum, dragging the DPJ, kicking and screaming, in with him.

The new DPJ had a successful test drive in the 2007 House of Councillors elections, where it prevailed over the LDP. It can be argued, however, that the DPJ did well due more to latent disgust at the LDP (particularly over the pension scheme fiasco and other policy missteps ) than thanks to the DPJ’s new look.

Ozawa’s DPJ received its real test in the 2009 House of Representatives elections, completely flipped the country’s districts from LDP to DPJ control. The touchstone of the election was the DPJ’s policy manifesto, which contained so many concessions and promises to so many different constituencies as to be internally incoherent, and impossible to implement as a whole. A strategy of promising everything to everyone made perfect sense in political terms, the electoral map having been drawn by the LDP in such a way as to favour the party that could make the most most improbable promises.

The results of the 2009 vindicated Ozawa and bolstered his standing in the party to immense heights. A grateful Hatoyama, who found himself in the position of being the party’s candidate for Prime Minister thanks to Ozawa’s having rigged the snap 2009 party leader election, granted Ozawa the position of Secretary-General and the ability to fully complete the transformation of the DPJ into his personal policy and elections machine.

Events, however, began eating away at Ozawa’s authority within the party faster than he could remake the party to his own needs. The global economy began recovering from the 2008 crash much earlier than anticipated, reducing the intense need for the deficit spending that undergirded his promises to interest groups and shifting attention toward countries with seemingly unsustainable debt increase paths, of which Japan was one. Prime Minister Hatoyama’s political finance difficulties turned out to be far, far worse than imagined, composed of hundreds of real, repeated criminal acts involving hundreds of millions of yen. The Futenma base problem turned out to be insoluble, no matter that most of the country believed that the Okinawans had been shafted by previous LDP governments.

What seems to have broken the camel’s back, however, was Ozawa’s shutting down the DPJ’s Policy Research Council. While nominally a move to concentrate policy formation in the Cabinet, the abolition of the Council looked like shutting down the only forum for anti-Ozawa elements to argue that the party manifesto was a laundry list of promises, not a plan, — and an electoral liability for a ruling party. Whether or not this contention was true on not is debatable — but by abolishing the Policy Research Council, Ozawa seemed to be declaring that the debate would not ever happen.

While members from the DPJ’s middle ranks fought with Ozawa over the elimination of the Council, it was likely that they did so under the supervision of senior members of the party, many of whom understood that their own influence was in danger of being usurped by Ozawa. Until the abolition of the Council, the claims that Ozawa sought to establish a dictatorship could be explained away as fanciful LDP scare stories. After the Council’s abolition, foisting to the sidelines of dozens of experienced and savvy DPJ policy wonks, the scare stories seemed suddenly less farfetched.

The turning point, it seems, was the Ubukata Affair. When Ubukata Yukio went to the media with the case against Ozawa, the party directorate, controlled by Ozawa, announced that Ubukata would be stripped of his Deputy Secretary-General post. This decision, however, was not to last the weekend. Announced on a Thursday, it was rescinded on the following Monday.

I wondered at the time why the so-called Seven Magistrates of the DPJ — younger leaders considered prime ministerial material — did not follow Ubukata’s lead and rid themselves of their wounded and troublesome Secretary-General and his associates. At the time, I rationalised the inaction of Sengoku Yoshito (now Chief Cabinet Secretary), Edano Yukio (now DPJ Secretary-General) and others as a decision to take the path of least resistance. Clashing with Hatoyama and Ozawa head on was risky; picking up the pieces after a disastrous House of Councillors election would be child’s play.

Following the collapse of support for the Cabinet and the Party last month in the wake of the reversal of the promise to move the MCAS Futenma out of Okinawa and the resultant dismissal of Fukushima Mizuho from the Cabinet, the Seven Magistrates found themselves in the situation where they could carry out the prophesied coup — because, as every poll indicated, the House of Councillors election was lost.

Hence the paradox: leaders within the DPJ opposed to Ozawa could move in and alter the course of future events only after the course of future events was inevitable.

Since seemingly winning over former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio to their cause, the anti-Ozawa leaders have moved with staggering efficiency and dispatch to eliminate Ozawa’s influence over both policy and party management. Fiscal conservatives now occupy all the party’s and the government’s top policy positions (bureaucrat bête noire Ren Ho, who had been slated to take over for Fukushima at Consumer Affairs, will take over for Edano as Minister of Government Revitalizsation), the Policy Research Council is being revived and newly-elected Prime Minister has told Ozawa to keep his thoughts and advice to himself for a while.

The new DPJ leadership and Cabinet line-ups are sending a message, one that will have repercussions well beyond its already measurable impact on the outlook for the number of seats Kan & Company will win in the upcoming House of Councillors election.

The DPJ, the classical DPJ, is back.

This article was originally posted at Shisaku where Michael Cucek writes.

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