Tokyo Notes

Man Who Cried Wolf?

Yoichi Masuzoe’s newly-launched party gets off to an unpromising start.

Former Cabinet member and TV pundit Yoichi Masuzoe finally launched a ‘new’ party Friday, the third new political entity to emerge in a fractious month in Japanese politics. Opinion polls suggest Masuzoe has been the No. 1 choice among the public to be prime minister by a wide margin, but whether this latest move will impress the nation looks far from certain.

Ridiculed by some members of the Liberal Democratic Party as the ‘middle-aged man who cried “Wolf!’’, Masuzoe is in danger of living up to that epithet and ultimately being ignored after talking endlessly about leaving the party.

Having set up a study group within the LDP earlier this year to look into economic reforms along similar lines to those of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Masuzoe, with his growing popularity, seemed set to create a solid support base with a clear agenda within the LDP either to mount a leadership bid after the summer’s upper house election or to establish a new party with fellow travelers.

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the conventional tactic of the diehard politician would have been to play the waiting game and then have the LDP eating out of his hand after another poor showing by the party in the upcoming election. No doubt many LDP members were hoping he would play that role. But it seems his blistering criticism of the current LDP leadership alienated too many within the party, leaving him isolated and with no choice but to leave and look for allies to form a new political force.

With so many new parties emerging this month with the aim of gaining a casting vote or influential coalition role in a divided post-election upper house, for Masuzoe to make a big impact, it was critical that he distinguished his new political movement from the others. He needed to show his party did have a fresh, vibrant political agenda, coherent policies and more than just the minimum number of Diet members to secure political subsidies.

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But he seems to have failed on all accounts.

Instead of setting up an entirely new political party, he first joined the existing Kaikaku Club party and then renamed it Shinto Kaikaku. The advantage of this, as the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun daily pointed out in an editorial, is that Masuzoe will now have at his disposal a 30 million yen political subsidy just received by the Kaikaku Club. Practical, yes, but the impression of political convenience is one he would have been better to avoid.

The new entity has only 6 members. While that’s one more than the 5 deemed the necessary minimum for setting up a party and applying for those political subsidies, it’s a far cry from the 44 Ichiro Ozawa left the LDP with back in 1993, as mentioned by the Asahi Shimbun today. And the image of political convenience is strengthened further on finding that all the members are from the upper house. That is to say, apart from Masuzoe, they were in danger of losing their seats in the upcoming election if they stayed in the LDP or in the marginalized Kaikaku Club as it was. Now, with Masuzoe’s popularity to cling to, they at least can have some hope for the future.

Then there’s the political agenda. If economic reform was supposed to be the focus of Masuzoe’s LDP study group, that looks less likely to be the main thrust of his new party given that the party’s general secretary will be Hiroyuki Arai–one of the postal rebels who quit the LDP in opposition to Koziumi’s postal privatization plans.

Instead, tackling deflation, improving international competitiveness, cleaning up politics and halving the number of Diet members have been set forth as the agenda. Apart from cutting the number of parliamentary representatives, you could imagine every politician in Japan stating such aims.

It remains to be seen whether Masuzoe can gain momentum through a more precise explanation of his proposed political vision, the garnering of more members and the forging of alliances with other small parties such as Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party. But at this point, the prospects do not look as promising as they should have been.

In other words, Masuzoe has stumbled just as he stepped up to take center stage.