Two Allies Divorced by Electoral Rigor Mortis

20 Oct

Tobias Harris offers not one, but two insightful articles on Japan’s Liberal Democrats, and, at the risk of sounding impertinent or opportunistic, I wonder if there’s a connection between the LDP’s slow death (I’m not quite sure non-subscribers can read this) and its resentment at the Bush administration de-listing of DPRK as a terrorist state.

Firstly, Harris argues that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is looking terminal.

The factions appear to be giving way to a myriad of study groups, Diet members’ leagues, and other ideologically oriented party clubs of differing durability and power, as well as tradition LDP informal groups like the so-called policy tribes (the road tribe, the construction tribe, the agriculture tribe, etc.). The new groups include entities like the Club of 83, composed of reform-oriented Diet members elected by dint of Mr. Koizumi’s coattails, and the “True Conservative Policy Research Group,” a group led by Nakagawa Shoichi, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC) under Mr. Abe and including Mr. Abe and Mr. Aso among its approximately eighty members. It is unclear what sway these new organizations have over their members, if any.

Accordingly, it is best to think of the contemporary LDP as divided not by faction or policy group, but by broad ideological “tendencies.” These tendencies include—being informal and lacking clear boundaries, this is a rough sketch—the conservative ideologues, centered in Mr. Nakagawa’s study group, a variety of Diet members’ leagues, and interspersed throughout the factions; the structural reformers who carry Mr. Koizumi’s torch and are now led by Hidenao Nakagawa (no relation), LDP secretary-general under Mr. Abe, whose school of thought is known as the “rising tide school” (because of the riding tide of growth that would be the product of the deregulatory reforms called for by Mr. Nakagawa); the fiscal reconstructionists, led by Kaoru Yosano and lacking broad popular appeal inside (although it can count on the support of the finance ministry); the old guard, including the various “tribesmen” who want to continue to use the government to provide pork and patronage to their constituents (they won a major victory in the spring in getting a new ten-year road construction plan into law); the liberals, few in number and led, insofar as they’re led, by Kato Koichi, a leader of the future who never panned out; and, perhaps the most numerous group of all, the risk-averse, those party members who if they are backbenchers worry most about the next election and if they are party elders worry most about ensuring the continuing dominance of the LDP.

For the moment, it is unclear which group is dominant. Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe each tried to claim the party for their group, and each ultimately failed; Mr. Fukuda, despite some reformist leanings, optimally relied on the support of the risk averse, many of whom ultimately found Mr. Fukuda too risky due to his dismal approval ratings. Mr. Aso’s cabinet appears to represent an emerging alliance between the ideological conservatives and the old guard, to the exclusion of the structural reformers. With Mr. Koizumi’s deciding to retire at the next general election, the question now is whether the structural reformers will stay in the LDP and continue to battle for supremacy or whether they will use the opportunity of Mr. Koizumi’s retirement to abandon the LDP and start their own party.

In the shift to ideological tendencies, the LDP has lost the coherence it had when it was primarily a union of factions all dedicated to the simple mission of keeping the LDP in power. Ideologues existed before, but with the factions increasingly irrelevant and policy increasingly more important than patronage, the LDP’s ideologues now have policy goals that are as important as the goal of keeping the LDP in power. Can the LDP last as a party pursuing several distinct and contradictory policy agendas? Will Mr. Aso or a future party leader be able to impose a uniform policy agenda on the party? Or will the next general election prove a catalyst for a party realignment that breaks up the LDP as it exists today?

Given this loss of coherence, I gather the LDP would find it difficult to devise radical policies without alienating “tribesmen”. Of course, where would they go? The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is the great hope of Japanese politics, that never quite repays the love. In that context, I wonder if a foreign policy issue, like North Korean abductions, has the juice both to anger LDP voters and party officials enough to defect to the DPJ. At this point, certain “tendencies” within the LDP are plenty angry with the Bush administration for its de-listing decision, and would be more relieved to see a President John McCain than an Obama administration, according to Harris.

…there will be talk of betrayal, abandonment, and potentially the need for greater Japanese independence from the US (recall Mr. Aso’s role in the debate over a debate on nuclear weapons that raged in the early days of the Abe cabinet). But I don’t see how this turn of events helps Mr. Aso. Having been blindsided by the US decision, Mr. Aso looks little different from his predecessors, despite his foreign policy experience and his purported Washington connections. Despite his commitment to resolving the abductions issue, the US finally decided to proceed with delisting under his watch. I still maintain that foreign policy will have little impact on the next general election, but at the very least it’s possible that voters will wonder whether there is something to Ozawa Ichiro’s critique of the LDP’s foreign policy as subordinating Japan to the US without getting anything in return. The US has furnished Mr. Ozawa with a resonant example with which to make his case.

Meanwhile Japan has little reason to hope that the US will shift again on North Korea in the future. Should Barack Obama win the presidency next month, it is conceivable that he will embrace the “bribery” approach. Indeed, his approach — at least in the statement his campaign released in response to the delisting — is a succinct summary of the Bush administration’s approach: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, a commitment to complete, verifiable denuclearization, and addressing the abductees issue at some point in the future. If John McCain wins, he will likely tack back to the Cheney line, reversing concessions to North Korea and restoring the US-Japan partnership on North Korea that prevailed 2002-2007. Senator McCain’s response emphasized the failure to consult with “our closest partners in Northeast Asia,” which presumably means Japan followed by South Korea. (The candidates’ statements can be found here.)

Little wonder that Japanese conservatives are cheering for Senator McCain.

The LDP seems wed to a brand of Japan-US relations about as destined for the scrap heap as the LDP itself. Not only is Washington fixated on PRC, but, as the recent NSG exemption with India shows, it is acting on its fixation with myopic single-mindedness. De-listing DPRK, I agree, is probably not the moral insult the LDP conservative think it is. Both Japan and US have entered into a period of pragmatic compromises, only not with each others’ advice in mind: the US wants a denuclearized Korean peninsula; Japan is dealing with structural economic reform in the teeth of recession. Both assume the other is its partner, but each is making plans that jeopardize its partner’s plans.

This is also why I think the loss of a strong multilateral IAEA component to Korean denuclearization bites. I support the six-party process as a second-best, ad hoc arrangement whose main value is as a stepping-stone to regional integration. The goal should be a stronger IAEA, with Pyongyang’s defection as a prime example prompting the reforms. That would allow the next American and Japanese administrations (a third Harris piece) a grace period, in which to debate the character of the Japan-US alliance and regional questions.

But, given how unimportant apparently East Asia is to the US, I am skeptical events will proceed so reasonably.

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