Illustration: Phil Couzens

The DPJ bets on Hatoyama

As became clear in the days before the DPJ's Diet members met Saturday to elect a party leader to replace Ichiro Ozawa, Yukio Hatoyama, one of the founders of the Democratic Party of Japan, has once again been selected to serve as party president. He received 124 votes to Katsuya Okada's 95 votes, with, as Jun Okumura notes, Hatoyama doing particularly well among upper house members.

He returns to the leadership at a critical moment, as the DPJ looks to reverse the decline in its popular standing over the past two months and put the buoyant Aso government and the LDP on the defensive again.

Hatoyama has quickly moved to consolidate his leadership. Perhaps not surprisingly, he suggested that he might name Okada to his old post of secretary-general. Perhaps more surprisingly, he said that he would give Ozawa a position in the party executive. I obviously expected that Ozawa would play an important role, but I wondered whether it pays to give him a formal role in the party leadership. But Hatoyama, in his initial press conference, indicated that he may retain the troika structure that characterized the DPJ leadership under Ozawa — with Okada's inclusion making it a quad. The party will probably be best off letting Ozawa do what he would be doing anyway, traversing the country on behalf of DPJ candidates in districts in which the party has struggled in the past.

Beyond personnel questions, Hatoyama will not introduce radical change to the DPJ's preparations for the next general election. The party will continue to stress administrative reform — when asked for a slogan for the campaign, Hatoyama offered up "a cabinet to make clean sweep of wasteful spending" (might need a little work) — and drastic economizing of the nation's finances. He is committed to the Ozawa balancing act on security policy, and would work to reach compromises with the Social Democrats if the SDPJ joins a DPJ-led coalition. What the last several days have revealed is that the DPJ is, as I argued in the April issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, not nearly as divided as the conventional wisdom suggests. It is revealing that the DPJ's "neo-conservatives" were not able to field a candidate of their own and were reduced to backing Okada because he was the candidate most distant from Ozawa — not because he was the candidate closest to their views. The DPJ has largely united around the Ozawa program: a focus on economic wellbeing and administrative reform, support for farmers, fishermen, and small- and medium-sized businesses, and a small Japan-ish nationalist foreign policy that stresses distance from the US, regional cooperation, and modest global contributions through multilateral organizations. The debate between Hatoyama and Okada before the election was exceptionally cordial, more of a discussion over how best to implement this program than a clash of conflicting visions. Removing Ozawa was simply a matter of political convenience — Ozawa forged this consensus, and it will survive at least through the general election.

But, nevertheless, I think the DPJ may come to regret electing Hatoyama as Ozawa's replacement, for reasons having less to do with Hatoyama's relationship with Ozawa than with who Hatoyama is as a politician.

When the Hatoyama brothers, Yukio and Kunio, split from Sakigake and the New Frontier Party respectively to form the first DPJ in 1996, the new party was derided as the "brothers' private party" — an impression reinforced by the role played by their mother in leading them to form the new party. As Mayumi Itoh writes in her biography of the Hatoyama dynasty: "In press interviews, Yukio and Kunio often referred to their mother by saying, 'my mother said so and so' and 'my mother is opposed to this and that,' although they were in their late forties at that time. A relative of the family said that the brothers were under their mother's thumb and that it was she who convinced Yukio to create a new party with Kunio. Yukio admitted that he was motivated by his mother's encouragement." Yukio showed a particularly clumsy hand when creating the new party, rushing to announce the party's creation prematurely and alienating Masayoshi Takemura, Sakigake president, in the process. The fledgling party turned to the popular Naoto Kan — then at the height of his popularity as the crusading health minister — largely as a means to repair the new party's image. (Shiota Ushio, Minshutō no Kenkyū, pp. 91-92.)

This episode may seem like ancient history, but it reveals several characteristics about Yukio Hatoyama that lead me to wonder whether Hatoyama is up to the job of leading the DPJ in the general election, and, if the party is successful, leading the first government led by a majority party other than the LDP in a half century.

Throughout his political career, Hatoyama has shown a certain frailty as a leader, a need for the support and approval of others that stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor as DPJ leader. Perhaps this quality made him uniquely suited to serve as Ozawa's lieutenant, repairing the damage when Ozawa committed some indiscretion or another, but it makes him less suitable as a party leader or prime minister. The arc of his career also suggests that Hatoyama lacks a certain toughness — not a problem that Ozawa has — which will be indispensable if Hatoyama is to become prime minister and will have to be responsible for keeping the DPJ united, coaxing coalition partners, and overriding a recalcitrant bureaucracy. These tasks would be hard enough for Ozawa. Will Hatoyama be any more adroit?

More significantly, Hatoyama is truly a political prince. As one reporter observed at Hatoyama's press conference Saturday, this year's election will be a rematch of the conflict that created the LDP in the first place. Taro Aso, Shigeru Yoshida's grandson, will square off against the grandson of Yoshida's archrival Ichiro Hatoyama. I admit there is a certain degree of dramatic symmetry — the grandsons will battle over the shape of the post-1955 system, just as their grandfathers battled to create the foundation for enduring conservative rule in the first place. But I would argue that the DPJ loses more than the LDP by choosing a political princeling as its leader. The LDP enjoys a certain degree of "political seigniorage," in that by virtue of having been dominant for more than a half century, the LDP is able to get away with malfeasance or inepitude by virtue of low expectations. Like the US government in the international monetary system, the LDP has political credit not available to a newer party like the DPJ because the public has been conditioned to expect less of the LDP — the party has to do something truly outrageous to exhaust its line of credit. However, the DPJ, in trying to be a force for change, actually has to live by its words to gain an advantage on the LDP. The DPJ will be penalized more for its hypocrisy than the LDP.

The process by which Hatoyama wound up as party leader smacks of hypocrisy. Not only was the election rushed, but the party twisted its leadership election rules to Hatoyama's advantage. Article 12, section 7 of the party rules does allow for a vote of the party's Diet members should the leadership post be vacated during the president's term — but it does not command such an election. Ordinary DPJ election rules provide for the participation of the party's members and supporters, who vote in the 300 local chapters that correspond with the 300 single-member lower house district. Each chapter has one electoral vote. The party's local government representatives receive 100 electoral votes, which are distributed proportionally. And the party's Diet members get one vote (which counts twice). This system makes perfect sense for an opposition party trying to build a national organization and having far fewer Diet members than the LDP, especially after the 2005 election. As MTC noted, opting for the emergency election process slanted the election in Hatoyama's (and Ozawa's) favor. It is not surprising that Hatoyama did well among upper house members, many of whom owe their jobs to Ozawa's leadership. But how will this play in the provinces? Will local chapters campaign with the same ardor for Hatoyama that they would have for Okada or Ozawa? Will some voters stay home?

DPJ members will probably not complain openly about the process by which Hatoyama was elected — the bump the party is sure to experience will soften criticism — but the media will likely not let voters forget how Hatoyama profited from Ozawa's manipulation. And the media will constantly remind voters (as if they needed any reminding) of Hatoyama's heritage.

Hatoyama may be fine on the whole, but what matters is the impact on the margins. A few votes here, a few votes there and suddenly the DPJ could find itself short of a majority or a plurality. When faced with a choice between the scions of two political dynasties, one of whom has made a career of sticking out and has done a passable job as prime minister, the other of whom has struggled not to be overshadowed by other politicians, which prince will the voters choose?

The party's face and prospective prime minister matters, in part because the LDP has since 2007 learned that it cannot indulge in ideological fantasies and expect to win elections. It has struggled to look like a party that cares about combating economic hardship. Aso has made a show of repudiating the Koizumi legacy, most recently on Friday, when he said that it is necessary "to dispense painkillers and have blood transfusions" to deal with the pain caused by the Koizumi reforms. Consider that after listing constitution revision as the party's number one priority in its 2007 manifesto, the LDP is actually debating whether to include constitution revision altogether in this year's manifesto. I think it is unlikely that the LDP would drop it — Aso, like Abe, stressed that revision has been a party goal since the LDP was founded — but revision is unlikely to take pride of place as in 2007.

In other words, it will not be enough for the DPJ to criticize the LDP for its inattentiveness. It will have to tap into the "it" factor that propelled Junichiro Koizumi into office and buoyed his government. Of course, neither Hatoyama nor Okada has it. Ozawa was probably the DPJ's best chance to win on intangibles.

And so it becomes clear how the LDP could pull off yet another unlikely victory: three economic stimulus packages, some fear mongering, disarray and poor leadership in the opposition camp, and a bit of luck. I am not calling the election for the LDP yet; I think it is wide open and a lot can happen in the three months or so until the election will most likely be held. There are still plenty of reasons to think that the DPJ will have its best ever performance in a lower house election. But under Hatoyama's watch the party looks that much less impressive, that much less formidable an opponent for a desperate LDP, and that much more vulnerable to the persistent claim of the LDP and its allies in the media that the DPJ is unfit to govern.

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