Tokyo Notes

LDP Not Playing Ball

Recent Features

Tokyo Notes

LDP Not Playing Ball

Japan’s main opposition party could ultimately harm its own interests through its relentless criticism of the government.

After ruling Japan almost continuously since its formation in 1955, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party was emphatically booted out of power last summer. Now the largest opposition party in a lopsided Diet (the Democratic Party of Japan-led government has control of the more powerful lower house, but lacks an outright majority in the upper house), the LDP is relentlessly attacking Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his beleaguered government in a way that can hardly be described as being in the national interest—and could ultimately be detrimental to its own.

While much criticism for the government’s handling of domestic issues and spiralling diplomatic crises may be justified, the LDP’s constant digs at the DPJ are comparable with the US Republican Party’s partisan response to every move made by Barack Obama and his Democrats. Opposition parties across the world can be accused of simply opposing (rather than coming up with constructive criticism or policy proposals) government legislation and decisions for the sake of it, and the LDP is no exception.

Let’s take a look at how the LDP has responded to recent events.

Looming over Japanese politics over the past couple of months has been the ongoing row between Tokyo and Beijing over the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands. The government was rightly hammered for apparently asking prosecutors to set free the captain of the Chinese trawler that collided with two Japanese patrol vessels (see Paul’s interpretation of this here). But the LDP wasted hours of budget deliberation sessions in the Diet trying to get the government to admit it intervened over the skipper’s release, and went as far as drawing up flowcharts for the TV cameras that highlighted Japan’s ‘Diplomatic Defeat.’ Over on China Power, Jason described this as a pyrrhic victory.

Japan found itself with a new diplomatic dilemma on Monday when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian or Soviet leader to step foot on one of the disputed islands to the north of Hokkaido. While Kan and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara slammed Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri Island, the LDP still couldn’t resist having a dig at the government. Shigeru Ishiba, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, said that Russia took advantage of the government’s incompetence in handling the disputed territory issue with China, adding: ‘I assume Russia acted in response to Japan's current style of diplomacy after years of dealing with the LDP. It's very regrettable.’

Cool handling of this issue is required and it doesn’t help matters when Japanese politicians waste energy throwing barbs at one another rather than focusing on an appropriate response.

The lingering issue of the relocation of a US Marine base on Japan’s southernmost Okinawa islands, meanwhile, has also provided prime government-baiting material for the LDP. Indeed, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s fudging of the issue was a major factor in his decision to step down. While the matter is on the backburner in light of Tokyo’s territorial jousting with Beijing, a recent move by the LDP seems inconsistent with its stance to date.

The previous LDP-led government drew up an agreement with the United States (which the DPJ has essentially settled upon) to relocate the Futenma base within Okinawa Prefecture. But on Friday, the LDP proposed a new law to develop the prefecture, which includes a long-term goal of ridding Okinawa entirely of US bases. And while it ridiculed Hatoyama for wavering on the issue, the LDP didn't set out in this new proposal where exactly it wants to locate US troops instead. The DPJ could counterpunch with this if its hands were not so full.

Domestically, the main opposition party has been badgering the government to summon DPJ bigwig Ichiro Ozawa to the Diet to testify under oath on his alleged involvement in a political funding scandal. Ozawa is stubbornly refusing to play ball and stand before the Diet’s ethical council. DPJ No. 2 Katsuya Okada is reportedly trying to get Ozawa to stand, but the government, quite rightly, wants to prioritize the passage of a supplementary budget to provide the economy with a much needed stimulus.

The LDP, however, is playing a political game over what some party lawmakers are calling the ‘Ozawa problem,’ churlishly stating that it will only engage in budget deliberations if Ozawa agrees to testify. With this looking increasingly unlikely, the LDP (which, ironically, has accused the government of tardiness in providing extra stimulus) should put partisanship aside and cooperate with the government to pass a budget—into which it could include some of its own measures.Ultimately, this continued offensive against the government could prove counter-productive for the LDP. Its alliance partner, Komeito, is reportedly distancing itself from the party and has already said it would back the DPJ’s stimulus budget. Such a shift by the Buddhist party toward the DPJ would significantly weaken the LDP’s hand and could breathe new life into a troubled government.

Add in a Japanese public that expects results rather than just political games, and it's clear any success for the LDP's tactical obstructionism may come at the expense of later strategic gains.