On Japan’s new leader

Later today, the Diet of Japan will proclaim a new Prime Minister for the sixth time in five years. The man, Yoshihiko Noda, has vowed to unite the country in order to move it forward. But before he could seek to unify his country, he would have to unify his own party first.

Noda’s election was a result of a process that drew the interest of many students of modern politics. It was an epic political battle that saw the defeat of Japan’s erstwhile shadow shogun, Ichiro Ozawa.

Few predicted that the 54-year-old would emerge victorious. In fact, many analysts in the mainstream media had already counted him off after his candidacy suffered tremendous set-back when the popular Seiji Maehara entered the race. Maehara and Noda share the same constituencies: The “mainstream” factions led by power-broker Yoshito Sengoku, Secretary-General Katsuya Okada, out-going Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and the other groups that sought to keep Ozawa—for better or for worse, Japan’s greatest political tactician in the last thirty years—in his political cage.

Ozawa, the enigma who had brought down and propped up many parties and governments, is running out of time. He is growing old, and his vision, as outlined in a “blueprint for new Japan” that he wrote twenty years ago, is yet to be realized. His influence is also receding. He had been isolated by Prime Minister Kan from the government, and his party rights have been suspended after he was indicted for a corruption scandal. But he still has some cards to play: Around 120 loyal lawmakers who owe him their political careers. He used them in his attempt yesterday to install yet another puppet, a politician with dubious integrity and ability named Banri Kaieda, as the next Prime Minister. It was a desperate life-or-death battle for Ozawa, as it was for Sengoku, Okada, Kan and others who are hell-bent at preventing an Ozawa come-back.

Analysts thought Kaieda would win the first ballot, followed by the popular Maehara. But the anti-Ozawa groups knew better. They sensed that Noda is less divisive than Maehara, who was very vocal in his criticism of Ozawa. Noda is therefore more winnable, especially for some Ozawa children whose loyalty to their master is shaky and would thus think twice before voting for a joke named Kaieda. And so, while Kaieda took the first ballot, with all the Ozawa votes solidly behind him; Noda was propelled to second place, with around one hundred votes. Since Ozawa’s numbers failed to reach the required 200 votes, Kaieda and Noda faced off in the second round of voting, at which point the other candidates—Maehara and Michihiko Kano—joined forces behind Noda.

“From now on, let’s take no sides,” the surprisingly eloquent Noda said after having been proclaimed winner. This statement is not just an exhortation for unity; it’s a warning.

If Ozawa continues to sabotage Noda’s administration the way he sabotaged Kan’s, Noda could either succumb to the opposition’s pressure to call for an early election or there could be a major party split, something that even Ozawa would not want. In the event of an early election, the Ozawa children—freshman lawmakers with neither political machinery nor the godfather-shadow shogun—would be the first casualties. Moreover, schism in the party would drive Ozawa and his ilk back to the political wilderness, where it would perhaps take them another thirty years to regain power. It would seem, therefore, that Ozawa has no choice but to cooperate with Noda, bear with the humiliation of being sidelined, and in the meantime silently prepare for battle in next year’s general election. But how can Ozawa, Yukio Hatoyama and their ilk cooperate with a Prime Minister who has promised to drop the 2009 DPJ Manifesto, the basis of the party’s mandate, like hot potato?

Obviously, it would be unwise to count Ozawa off the equation. He is likely to continue lurking in the shadows, which means keeping the party intact would be very challenging for the new Prime Minister. The wise thing to do is to avoid excacerbating the situation by appointing either Okada, Sengoku or any of their ilk to the position of Secretary-General. To placate the pro-Ozawa groups, that post must go to an elder politician who would be acceptable to everyone, like Speaker Azuma Koshiishi, for instance. (Update, Sept. 1: Noda has appointed Koshiishi as Secretary-General.)

Another challenge would be getting the opposition to cooperate. Noda has repeatedly talked about building a grand coalition between the ruling party and the opposition. But the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would likely remain lukewarm to such a proposal, since its support rate has already overtaken that of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), thanks to Ozawa’s shenanigans and Kan’s shortcomings. If the LDP’s actions in the past couple of months are any indication, the opposition would surely give the DPJ a dose of Ozawa’s medicine: Obstruction of the government in order to pressure it to dissolve the Diet and call for early elections, which if held today would result in an LDP come-back.

There’s a glimmer of hope, of course. A moderate faction in the LDP, led by Aquino admirer Nobuteru Ishihara and his fellow young turks, is willing to cooperate with the DPJ government. Of course, such attitude is not out of idealism or principles but of pragmatic considerations. The politically powerful religious sect Sokka Gakai, which controls LDP junior partner Komei Party, is tired of too much seikyoku, or political maneuverings, and wants Japan’s leaders to get their acts together in this time of great national crisis. If the opposition is to maintain its control of the Diet’s Upper House, the LDP must maintain its partnership with the Komei Party; which means the LDP must avoid incurring the ire of the Sokka Gakai leadership.

Unfortunately, many of Noda’s pronouncements do not sit well even with the Sokka Gakai. They are also polarizing and unpopular. He wants to raise taxes and continue Japan’s borrowing, for instance. The LDP and the Komei Party won control of the Upper House precisely due to Prime Minister Kan’s attempt to raise taxes last year. And it’s a consensus among political analysts that talking about raising taxes is a political no-no in Japan, as Kan had learned at great cost last year.

By suggesting such a highly unpopular measure, is Noda being brave or is he just being naïve? Well, when asked by a reporter during the campaign if he still stands by the assertion he made many years ago that Hideki Tojo, Tomoyuki Yamashita and other convicted Class A war criminals were not really criminals, he said: “Basically, my opinion has not changed.”

Bravery or naïveté? You decide.


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