The tug of war over the timing of the next general election continues. Will the prime minister dissolve the House of Representatives and call an election before the end of 2012, or will the government limp on into the New Year? Neither of the two main protagonists in this tussle—the prime minister and Democratic Party of Japan leader Noda Yoshihiko and Abe Shinzō, his counterpart in the opposition Liberal Democratic Party—appear to be following any script. Instead, the two leaders are engaged in a game of chicken, guided only by the shifting trends of public opinion.
The government and the DPJ began moves to convene an extraordinary session of the Diet as soon as talks broke down among the leaders of the DPJ and the two main opposition parties, the LDP and New Kōmeitō Party. But the opposition shows no sign of being ready to cooperate. There is still no concrete timetable in sight for dissolving the lower house and calling a general election. In this article I want to take a closer look at the strategies in play in this battle for public support.
The Dangers of the “Kantei Disease”
On many fronts, progress has ground to a standstill. Koshiishi Azuma remains in position as secretary general of the DPJ, despite a widely held assumption that he was certain to be replaced. The extraordinary session of the Diet expected to get underway in mid-October has been pushed back, and the prime minister has postponed plans to dissolve the lower house and call a general election.
Meanwhile, the mountain of problems requiring urgent attention only continues to grow. These include a bill to issue deficit-financing bonds and steps to rectify the disparity in the weight of votes under the current electoral system, which the Supreme Court says has rendered several recent elections “unconstitutional.” There is no clear roadmap for progress on any of these problems. Instead, the prime minister continues to press blindly ahead. As a politician, Noda seems to have undergone a transformation since securing reelection as party leader in September 2012.
Former transport minister Morita Hajime, who served as executive secretary to Ōhira Masayoshi during his time as prime minister in the late 1970s, has revealed his personal opinion of what is behind Noda’s recent behavior. Morita believes the prime minister has come down with what he dubs the “Kantei disease,” after the Japanese name for the prime minister’s official office and residence.
After setbacks in the general election of autumn 1979, Prime Minister Ōhira fought a political battle against the “anti-mainstream” forces within his own party who were calling for his resignation. The media dubbed this the “40 Days War.” In retrospect, it is clear that by this stage Ōhira was suffering from the “Kantei disease.”
What are the symptoms of this illness? According to Morita: “Being cooped up inside the Kantei all the time leads to an illusion of omnipotence. The prime minister can become convinced that if he uses his authority he can do anything. That’s the Kantei disease.” Ōhira managed to hold onto his position despite a tide of resistance and criticism coming at him from all directions. Tragically, however, the battle shortened his life. Ōhira suffered a heart attack during the campaign for the joint election for both houses of the Diet in 1980 and died in office.
Morita says Noda’s recent behavior suggests that the current prime minister is suffering from the same excessive belief in his own authority. The political situation today may be quite different from in Ōhira’s day, but Noda shows the same grim determination to fight against the political tide. An exaggerated faith in the powers of the prime minister has perhaps infected him with the same “Kantei disease” that brought down Ōhira.
Noda’s Secret Plan?
The party elders who act as unofficial advisors to the prime minister are doing nothing to discourage him from his present course. Comments made by one member of the party leadership suggest that there are three principal strands to the party’s strategy. Simply put, these are: (1) the deficit-reducing bond bill can be dealt with any time within the current financial year, which runs till the end of March 2013; (2) the budget for next fiscal year should be drawn up under a Noda government; and (3) it may not be necessary to convene an extraordinary session of the Diet before the end of this year.
These priorities clearly put the party first. They show no concern for the national interest. Could there be a more eloquent demonstration of the dysfunctional state into which Japanese politics has fallen? The intention behind these three priorities is clear: The party leadership wants to postpone a general election as long as possible in the hope of a more favorable political climate. This is their best hope of avoiding humiliating defeat at the polls and, possibly, the collapse of the party itself. This matches the strategic thinking of the DPJ secretary general, Koshiishi Azuma, who has gone so far as to talk of a possible joint election for both houses next year.
Inside the bunker of the Kantei, only good news reaches the prime minister’s ears. Bad news and unpalatable facts are kept outside. As a result, the prime minister shows no sign of being ready to soften his stubborn and inflexible stance. The symptoms of his disease are only growing more serious.
The LDP has repeatedly accused the prime minister of breaking a promise to the electorate to go to the polls in the “near future,” arguing that “common sense” dictates that this means by the end of this year at the latest. The prime minister, still not completely oblivious to public opinion, has given the go-ahead for an extraordinary session of the Diet to be convened. But there is no guarantee that this will lead to a dissolution of the Diet between now and the end of the year, and political maneuverings continue. The prime minister’s decision can also be seen as part of the propaganda war—an attempt to redirect public criticism toward the LDP and bring public opinion over to his side.
Meanwhile, a rumor doing the rounds within the DPJ suggests that secret plans are afoot for early in the new year. This scenario envisages Noda facing a vote of no-confidence early in the regular session of the Diet next January. If the vote passes, Noda and his cabinet would resign without dissolving the Diet. In this way, the party would be able to elect a new leader and go into an election with a fresh face at the helm. Some speculate that this “top secret agreement” to restore the party’s fortunes by a brilliant piece of political daring was part of talks between Noda and Koshiishi following Noda’s reelection as party leader. Whether there is any truth to the rumors is anyone’s guess. But if a secret agreement along these lines does exist, it is possible that it will be brought forward and put into practice during the extraordinary session of the Diet now scheduled to begin on October 29. The DPJ now has a chance to improve its political standing in return for a resignation by Noda and his cabinet—but the prime minister is running out of cards to play.
(Originally written in Japanese on October 23, 2012.)
Senior commentator at Jiji Press and editor-in-chief of Diplomacy magazine. Analyzes Japan’s foreign affairs and domestic policies. Joined the Political Affairs Department at Jiji Press after graduating from Waseda University. Served two stints in the United States, one based in Washington, DC, and the other as bureau chief in New York. Works include Imada ni tsuzuku “haisenkoku gaikō” (A Defeated Nation’s Diplomacy: Japanese Relations with Two Great Powers) and Ozawa Ichirō wa naze TV de nagurareta ka (Why Ichiro Ozawa Was Hit on TV: Visible Politics and Invisible Politics in a Televised Age).