Building a New DPJ

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Building a New DPJ

Yoshihiko Noda faces plenty of challenges as Japan’s new prime minister. The most immediate is choosing his new government.

Yoshihiko Noda was yesterday elected head of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and today was confirmed by parliament as Japan’s new prime minister. That he will immediately set to work on the selection of a new core executive for his party and a new cabinet is clear. What is less clear is just how Noda will repair the cracks in the DPJ so that it can present a unified face to the opposition parties in the Diet.

A number of questions present themselves. First, how will Noda properly reward those who supported him in the runoff against former minister of economics, trade and industry Banri Kaeda? Noda will have to give high party and government positions to those who worked hard for his campaign, buttonholing and browbeating undecided legislators into voting for him. But he will also have to save some spaces for those Diet members who voted for another politician in the first round, then threw their support behind him in the second round. Just how to dole out this second set of spoils is complicated, as Noda knows from the numbers that some of those who were supposed to vote for him in the runoff actually voted for Kaieda. But, since the ballot was secret, he doesn’t know who these traitors are.

Second, how is Noda going to accommodate the losers in this election, namely those who voted for Kaieda? Noda said in the first line of his acceptance speech: ‘Let’s have no sides.’ He was clearly indicating that he hoped to abandon the damaging split in the party between those who wish to continue to ostracize former party leader and kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, and those who want to rehabilitate him. The decision over Ozawa is probably quite simple: he remains stripped of his party rights for the duration of his trial on false accounting charges. After all, if he’s rehabilitated, the opposition parties will never cooperate with the DPJ in passing legislation through the Diet. 

As to what to do with those who voted for Kaieda, well that’s much more complex. Saying he wants ‘no sides’ should indicate that Noda wants to include those who didn’t vote for him in his administration. However, Ozawa followers and the supporters of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama want to protect the policies listed in the DPJ’s 2009 Manifesto. Such a stance is in direct conflict with Noda’s proposed programme of acknowledging that the reconstruction of the country’s northeast will involve sacrifices of sacred cows in the national budget. It also conflicts with his policy of accommodating the requests of the DPJ’s major opponents, the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito. Just how Noda will be able to keep in line potential members of his government or party executive whose ideology is in direct opposition to his own is an open question.

Right now, the most feverish speculation is on who will be DPJ secretary general. The post is vital. The secretary general is the coordinator of the interests of all the various groups within the DPJ – and, if necessary, the enforcer of the will of the party executive. He or she is also the ultimate interlocutor with the leaderships of the opposition parties (the head of the party of the government doesn’t generally meet the heads of the opposition parties unless it is to consult about particularly serious matters, such as the formation of a coalition government). The secretary general is also in charge of elections – both the selection of the party’s candidates, and the doling out of funds to the various campaigns. 

The main question is whether Noda will appoint an Ozawa friend such as DPJ House of Councillors Chairman Azuma Koshiishi in order to seal the breech in the party, or will he appoint a less prominent policy wonk in order to manage the daily give-and-take between participants in the processes of governing – the ministers, the bureaucracy, the opposition and the press.

Currently not the subject of discussion, but still looming in the distance, is the question of cabinet picks. Should Noda again appoint several members of the pro-Ozawa group in the party to ministerial positions, despite this group’s opposition to the watering down of the party’s 2009 manifesto? Or will he appoint only persons loyal to his vision of a smaller, more prudently managed government, in repudiation of the expansive promises of the DPJ’s purported guiding document?

Noda clearly has a series of high hurdles to vault over the next few days as he contemplates how to fill in the various posts in his party and the government. He will inevitably leave some individuals and groups feeling cheated. Just how much the winners of the selection process work together, and how loudly the losers complain, will go far in determining whether the Noda administration hits the ground running – or comes out of the gate stumbling.  

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the MIT Center for International Studies in Tokyo.