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A Lack of Ideology, Part II

Picture the following hypothetical scenario. US Democrats, after losing their majority in Congress in 1994, begin squabbling amongst themselves due to personal, not political, differences. After all, there can only be one minority leader. The exact right thing for the Democrats to do would be to downplay their differences amongst themselves, and play up their differences vis a vis the Republicans, in order to win back a majority in Congress.

The exact wrong thing to do (in fact, an incredibly stupid thing to do) would be to abandon the party altogether, and split up into five separate parties with five separate leaders. The only thing that could be less productive would be to almost instantly announce that because the newly formed parties have common interests, they would work together in a loose confederation to unseat the majority, begging the question of why they split in the first place. The largest Japanese minority party, Shinshinto ("New Frontier Party"), has done exactly that, tossing the Japanese Diet into a flurry of confusion that will only serve to strengthen the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Briefly, here is a rundown of a hectic two weeks. Shinshinto, formerly the largest opposition party, ran an opposition to the LDP strong enough that the LDP was forced to form a coalition with two other mid-size parties, and thus move a bit to the political center to pacify their more liberal coalition partners.

But Shinshinto, run by the outspoken Ichiro Ozawa, fell apart after the last party election, in which Ozawa won, to the great dismay of some rather powerful Shinshinto politicians. These folks (including two former Prime Ministers) decided they were fed up with Ozawa's strong-arm, uncompromising leadership, and left Shinshinto, taking their loyal supporters to form their own parties. Five parties, in fact, each without a single distinguishing characteristic.

The new parties are the Democratic Reform Party (led by Sadako Sasano), Taiyo Party (led by former PM Tsutomu Hata), From Five (led by another former PM, Morihiro Hosokawa), Shinto Yuai ("New Party Fraternity," led by Kansei Nakano), and Kokumin no Koe ("Voice of the People," led by Michiko Kano). In an indication of the haste of the changes made last week, this last party was originally given the official English name "Voice of People," and it made placards bearing that label, until a certain native English speaker told Kano that he was missing an article. The official English name has since been changed to reflect proper grammar.

Good grammar, however, is easier to come by than good sense. Since the day when Shinshinto members decided they simply could not get along and thus had to disband, they have since decided that maybe their differences are not so great after all. On Dec. 6, the five parties announced that they will be forming a coalition of six parties, the other party being Shinshinto's former coalition partner, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Naoto Kan, which has 52 Lower House members.

The new coalition is to be called "Minshu Yuai Taiyo Kokumin Rengo," or (luckily for political analysts) Minyuren for short. Before its breakup, Shinshinto was the largest opposition party. Now, Minyuren is the largest minority force, with 97 Lower House seats -- in comparison to the 376 members of the LDP. Yukio Hatoyama, Secretary General of the DPJ, said of Minyuren, "We basically agreed to form a bigger force." Minyuren will indeed be bigger than the DPJ alone, but not necessarily stronger, unless they can form a coherent and distinct set of policies.

Minyuren announced on Dec. 7 that they have reached several concrete policy goals, including six trillion yen in tax cuts (as opposed to the current administration's plan for only three trillion in cuts), and further decentralization of power to local entities, which the current government supports in principle. The most important distinction so far is that Minyuren believes that the use of public funds should be restricted to compensating depositors, and not for bailing out troubled financial institutions, which the LDP (rightfully) supports. These policy "differences" are somewhat distinct from current LDP policy, but not at all different from the policies of the party formerly known as Shinshinto.

So then why did the parties split and then rejoin? The answer has little to do with policy, and everything to do with personality. The leaders of the new parties did not want to compromise with the notoriously difficult Ozawa, and wanted to be bigger fish in their own small sea. Last July, I wrote that the summer's municipal elections in Tokyo were indicative of a lack of ideology in Japanese politics, and that the election was a harbinger of national elections to come. Japan's politicians haven't even reached the next national election, and already they have proven the point. Ideology in Japanese politics is virtually non-existent. Only personality matters.

Well, not entirely. Two parties in a coalition of their own, Shinto Heiwa ("New Party Peace," backed by the Japanese Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai), and Kaikaku ("Reform," led by Tatsuo Ozawa), were invited to bring their 46 Lower House seats to the newly forming coalition. But in a rare display of actual political ideology, the two parties refused, largely because the conservative Kaikaku party disliked the large base of support that the DPJ receives from labor unions.

The last remnant of Shinshinto is Ichiro Ozawa and his new Liberal Party, with 42 members in the Lower House. Ozawa, who is not known for a lack of ideology, but rather for his strong political opinions, set forth his new party's platform. The platform includes halving income taxes and residential taxes, increasing consumption tax, completely overhauling the education system, deregulating and streamlining the bureaucracy, and making increasingly active the Self-Defense Forces' participation in United Nations Peacekeeping operations.

This platform sounds like a reasonably clear set of policies. However, they are also the same exact policies furthered by the majority LDP, which Ozawa has harshly criticized, somehow, as "vague." Ozawa himself used to be a member of the LDP, but that was before the LDP joined forces with the Social Democratic Party of Japan. The SDPJ does not share Ozawa's enthusiasm for participation in peacekeeping operations UNPKO, and acts as a check on how far the LDP is willing to extend its military, a fact which annoys Ozawa, who has written a book on the subject of increasing Japan's UNPKO participation.

In total, the Diet now has fifteen parties, ten of which are in opposition. Of those ten, only the Communist party (which is about as Communist as Britain's Labour Party before Tony Blair) has a consistent ideological stance, which is merely to oppose anything the LDP says. The above-mentioned coalition of the conservative Shinto Heiwa and Kaikaku showed a flash of a semblance of ideology in their rejection of the new coalition. But the other seven opposition parties (the six in the newly formed Minyuren and Ozawa's Liberal Party) are wandering around randomly, desperately trying to put together something that looks good before they get walloped in the next elections. Current LDP Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is facing his lowest approval ratings ever, yet he looks like a strong and principled leader compared to the incoherent opposition in the Diet.

Kansei Nakano, leader of Shinto Yuai, said on behalf of the new opposition coalition, "We should first offer our deepest apology to voters who supported Shinshinto." Those voters are not alone. All of Japan deserves an apology for this shameless jockeying for personal power. The opposition has lost a great deal of credibility, an increasingly rare commodity. Their incoherence will lead to continued dominance by the LDP, which is not pushing through badly needed political and bureaucratic reform. In splitting and reforming, the opposition has effectively abandoned pressuring the LDP for further reform, and many Japanese have concomitantly abandoned hope that Japan's struggling economy can be revitalized in the near future.

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