Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ozawa Comes Through

The opposition party DPJ has a well-deserved reputation of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And true to form, party leader Ozawa's secretary has just managed to get arrested for accepting illegal campaign contributions on behalf of Ozawa from a construction company.

Yes, it looks more than a little convenient that this investigation and arrest happens to occur just when it is really, desperately most needed by the ruling LDP - if I understood the morning news correctly the donations happened three years ago - but that does not obscure the fact that the allegations most likely are completely true. This is a disaster for Ozawa, of course, whether he personally knew about it or not, but also a serious blow for the DPJ. As Tobias Harris points out, the only way to even halfway save the DPJ is for Ozawa to step down and anoint a successor before the fallout becomes even worse.

Here's the problem: DPJ and LDP are very much alike. You might imagine them as an old, tired entrenched ruling party on one hand, and a scrappy fresh newcomer full of new ideas and initiatives on the other. That is not the case. The DPJ is very much the same as LDP. Their detailed policies differ, but DPJ and LDP largely occupy the same general area in the political landscape, and they consist largely of the same political old guard, with the same kind of hereditary political background. Ozawa himself is typical: he was weaned within the LDP and left it for the opposition in the aftermath of an internal political fight. The DPJ is effectively more like a broken-out faction of the LDP than like a truly independent party. A hypothetical example for Swedish readers would be if all other current parties were tiny and inconsequential, and the only real voter choice is between two overlapping wings of the Social Democrats.

This is the reason that the relentless decline of LDP in the opinion polls have mostly not been accompanied with a corresponding increase for the DPJ. The DPJ has rightly been viewed as "LDP with another name", and the main challenge for Ozawa has been to break that perception and remake the DPJ into a true opposition alternative. That work has now been well and truly ruined. Taking illegal campaign money - from the construction industry no less; even loan sharks and pachinko parlors have better reputation - is such classic LDP behavior that voters have every reason to ask whether they'd actually get any substantial change with the DPJ. And truth is, they probably won't.

The end result is disconcerting. The consistent winner in opinion polls is "None/None of the above", and that non-answer is likely to gain further if the next election delivers a weak LDP government in the lower house while the disgraced DPJ holds on to the upper house. LDP has consistently shown it is utterly unable to work with the opposition - after almost two years of a divided house the thought hasn't even occurred to them - and so we might see at least another few years of completely ineffectual non-leadership from the political establishment, at a time when leadership is desperately needed.

My fear is that the strength of "None of the above", and the certain decline of voter interest is paving the way for a radical third option, a real alternative to the twins of LDP/DPJ. And while an alternative is desperately needed I'm really worried about what alternative that may be. Had DPJ managed to hold it together and take the reins with an actual mandate, that could have created the opportunity for an orderly transformation of Japanese politics.

But with them falling apart before the election the transformation (which will happen, one way or another) risk becoming anything but orderly. The kind of parties and political movements that spring out of this kind of political chaos are rarely the kind that you'd actually want to have running a country: populist rather than responsible; extremist rather than mainstream; dictatorial rather than democratic; divisive rather than uniting. It's not a substantial risk - not yet - but just the possibility is worrying.

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