Japan’s petty intramurals

Today, members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will participate in the most important election for Prime Minister of Japan in the decade.

Obviously, much is at stake in this election; the new leader must have the ability and the willingness to unite his people in rebuilding an earthquake-torn country in the short term, and reversing the downward spiral brought about by the Bubble and the subsequent two-and-a-half decades of stagnation in the long term. Given these urgencies, it’s reasonable for an ordinary Japanese to expect an election marked by a high level of discourse, with statesmen exchanging visions that would inspire their countrymen to rebuild their country and end the prevailing national malaise.

Unfortunately, this election is far from that. There’s no high-level discourse on how to move the country forward, just shameless political maneuverings driven by personal ambitions and motivations. Perhaps with just one exception, the politicians vying for the top job in today’s election are not there to implement the policies and grand ‘visions for the future’ they pay lip service to, but rather to jockey for the country’s highest position merely to cap their respective careers. For them, becoming Prime Minister is the end in itself; being able to implement whatever plans they have, and therefore to contribute a stone in the edifice, is merely secondary. It’s often said that Japan has plenty of fine citizens, but I can say that there seems to be a shortage of fine statesmen.

To understand why this is so, we have to consider that, structurally, Japanese politics has always been shady and transactional, thanks to sixty years of “governance” by the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the all-powerful Bureaucracy and their allies in the private sector. Factionalism and horse-trading among shadowy political figures meant politicians practiced seikyoku, or political maneuverings, more than seiji, or politics, itself. To accommodate everyone, political factions in the LDP had instituted the revolving door system in the office of the Prime Minister; Japan had to change its leader almost as often as Madonna had sex. As a result, a mentality of entitlement consumed many status-conscious elder politicians – they all think that it’s their turn, so to speak.

Not that there are no good politicians in the country. Indeed, the DPJ came to power with the mandate of bringing about change in the country’s political landscape. And many of the party’s members take that mandate to heart. For instance, the out-going Prime Minister, for all his shortcomings, is a man of principle. Abandoned and isolated by the self-serving bureaucrats and obstructionist opposition politicians, he tried to respond to the greatest post-war crisis ever to hit the country with utmost diligence. Standing firm with his principles, he refused to bow down to the greatest political tactician in the last thirty years, Ichiro Ozawa, and tried to fend off his numerous attempts to sabotage his administration.

Incidentally, Ichiro Ozawa is an important reason why today’s election has become a petty political intramural that the Japanese don’t deserve. He is also the architect of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s downfall. And the biggest, if not the only, issue in this election is all about him: Should he be let out of his political cage or not?

Ozawa is an enigma that fascinates many students of politics. On one hand, he is a reformist who has spent much of his political life trying to dismantle the old system where instead of the elected politicians, the bureaucrats, and by extension the big private lobbies, call the shots; and to get Japan to pursue a more independent foreign policy. On the other hand, he is a shadowy figure notorious for the skillful way with which he navigates the political backrooms. He had brought down the powerful LDP twice. During the first time, he propped up prime ministers Toshiki Kaifu and Morihiro Hosokawa, considered them his puppets, and destroyed them when they turned against him. He obstructed recent LDP prime ministers Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso and eventually brought down the LDP for the second time, propping up another puppet, Yukio Hatoyama. The DPJ, knowing that Ozawa’s political acumen is the key to gain power, had initially rallied behind the shadow shogun; but as soon as the party took the reins of power, divisions brought about by Ozawa’s dictatorial methods surfaced, the result of which is the present cleavage within the party between the pro-Ozawa and the anti-Ozawa factions.

Hatoyama’s successor, Prime Minister Kan, bent on being his own man, tried to isolate Ozawa and undermine his influence. This prompted Ozawa to challenge Kan in last year’s regular DPJ election; but alas, the party’s grassroots chapters rallied against him. The bureaucrats then had Ozawa indicted for an old corruption scandal, and Kan and the party executives had him suspended from the party and stripped of voting rights. Furious, Ozawa then rallied his supporters to file a no-confidence vote against Kan last June, which the latter narrowly dodged only by promising to step down at a later date. That attempted coup was seen by many as the last hurrah from Ozawa, who seemed to be running out of options. But as always, those who counted the shadow shogun out had been wrong.

Of the five candidates in today’s election, the public’s choice is staunchly anti-Ozawa. Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a young, photogenic politician whom many analysts think has the potential to be the next Junichiro Koizumi, is the only candidate who has repeatedly said that Ozawa’s party rights should not be restored until after his acquittal. He is also the most popular. If today were a regular DPJ presidential election, Maehara would win and Ozawa would be finished. But today’s election is not a regular one, and the rules can work in Ozawa’s favor. In a regular election, Diet members, party executives, and grassroots party chapters may vote. Ozawa and his ilk are not popular with the grassroots party members, thanks to their notorious reputations. This is why Ozawa lost to Kan in last year’s election. But since Kan’s two-year term has not yet expired, today’s election will be a special one; meaning, only the Diet members may vote. In short, the public will be merely spectators in the election.

There are 398 Diet members in the DPJ. 120 of them are loyal to Ozawa, while around forty to fifty are said to be loyal to Ozawa’s sidekick, Hatoyama. In the past week, Ozawa and Hatoyama wasted no time in whipping up their respective factions so they could vote as a solid bloc.

To be the next DPJ president, a candidate must obtain at least 200 votes. The Ozawa-Hatoyama bloc has around 170 votes. There are, give or take, around fourty non-aligned votes, which leave us with around 188 anti-Ozawa votes. If all these 188 could rally solidly behind Maehara, then he can be assured of victory, as we can safely say that the neutral members would back the public’s choice. Unfortunately, the anti-Ozawa bloc is divided between Maehara and another candidate, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Noda and Maehara are both alumni of the Matsushita Institute of Governance, and as such propriety requires them to give way to the other in any leadership race. Noda had once given way to Maehara when the DPJ was still in the opposition, and Maehara had initially suggested that he would not run but support Noda instead. But Maehara’s supporters successfully encouraged him to run at the last minute, dealing a big blow to the candidacy of Noda, who had earlier been seen as the front-runner.

The Ozawa-Hatoyam bloc, on the other hand, is rallying behind Trade, Economy and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda. There are several reasons why that man should not become Prime Minister. First, as the head of the METI, he should be held responsible for the nuclear mess, the cover-up, and the other shenanigans the Ministry bureaucrats did on behalf of TEPCO and the nuclear lobby. Second, he broke down and wept at a Diet hearing regarding the Fukushima mess, suggesting that he could not, and would not, stand the heat and should therefore be out of the kitchen. Third, while he is singing praises for Ozawa now in exchange for his support today, he once wrote a book entitled Why I Hate Ozawa’s Politics. This tells a lot about how easily he can drop his principles for his ambitions. But thanks to Ozawa and Hatoyama’s support, Kaieda is actually leading the race.

Should Kaieda win the vote, Ozawa can expect to be re-instated in the party. This means that there would again be, at best, a dual power structure where Ozawa could exercise veto power over Kaieda’s appointments and key policies. This is of course fine for Kaieda since, as we have earlier noted, becoming the Prime Minister of Japan is for him an end in itself, being able to completely wield power is just a bonus. But if Ozawa’s candidate loses, then Ozawa, already isolated and growing old, may face the prospect of becoming politically irrelevant within the DPJ. Today’s election, therefore, could be a life-or-death battle for the erstwhile shadow shogun.

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