Today, the 398 eligible members of Democratic Party of Japan will vote for a replacement for current Prime Minister Naoto Kan. It’s easy to make light of the proceedings, which will elect the seventh prime minister Japan has had in the last five years. Just another election, some might argue, giving the country a leader without giving it leadership.
There’s certainly much merit in such scepticism. Given that the partisan political divisions that bedevilled the premiership of Kan – both of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) and the DPJ – will still be present and waiting to shackle the initiatives of the new DPJ leader, there’s little hope of Japan’s next leader’s lasting any longer than his five immediate predecessors.
Still, it would be unwise to dismiss Monday’s DPJ election as simply an empty exercise, because there are some serious issues facing the unprecedented five candidates vying to become the next leader of the party and country.
Since last July, Japan has had two opposing coalitions in charge of each of the two Houses of the Diet. The DPJ holds control of the House of Representatives, the House that elects the prime minister; its bitter rival the Liberal Democratic Party controls the House of Councillors. This leads to an anomalous situation where the party in power can’t pass any of its own legislation. Instead, the only legislation that has any hope of passage is drafted by the party that is outside the Cabinet. As the ruling DPJ doesn’t want to defer to the political programme of the minority LDP, action in Japan’s most important branch of the government has ground to a near halt. Only the calamity of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of March 11, and Naoto Kan’s unnerving threat to not resign unless three major bills were passed, brought any cooperation between the two Houses on vital pieces legislation.
The next leader of the DPJ will need to provide an answer over how to break the deadlock in the Diet. Most public opinion polls show the populace favouring the DPJ and LDP working together on a bill-by-bill basis. Unfortunately, this approach was tried by the departing Kan administration with zero success.
The candidates in Monday’s election offer various solutions to the problem of the divided Diet. Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and former foreign minister Seiji Maehara favour a grand coalition of the two major parties, with Maehara seeing the coalition as being for a fixed period of time and Noda the coalition as a more open-ended affair. The three other candidates in the race – Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Michihiko Kano, former minister of transport Sumio Mabuchi and Minister of Economics, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda – argue that a more unified DPJ, another major problem that bedevilled Kan’s premiership, will somehow lead the party to find better ways of negotiating with the LDP on significant legislation. Just how the one follows from the other is unclear.
Looming over the selection process of a new leader is the great shadow of Ichiro Ozawa. He has been shut out from direct influence in party affairs since he was persuaded to resign as party secretary general in May 2010. He’s currently under suspension by the party, the second most severe punishment after expulsion. However, thanks to the deep personal loyalty of around 120 of members of the Diet, he remains the chief power broker in the selection process.
Ozawa is a political genius. Indeed, it isn’t an exaggeration to say he is the most creative political strategist of his generation. He was the architect of the strategy that guided the DPJ from a perennial nice guy loser into a political machine capable of seizing power, which it did in spectacular fashion in August 2009.