One more for Watanabe?

Yoshimi Watanabe, the onetime cabinet minister who left the LDP earlier this year to form a reformist "third force" with independent Kenji Eda, is still preparing to launch a new party before next month's general election. But while the prospects for his incipient (and still nameless) party looked bright as the reformist rebellion against Prime Minister Taro Aso grew, the squelching of the rebellion have raised questions about whether the political system can accommodate a third major party. (Don't even get me started on onetime postal rebel Hiranuma Takeo's own plans for a third major party, a "true" conservative party. Hiranuma now has fifteen candidates in his group, and he is aiming to be in a position to determine who controls the lower house should neither party secure a majority.)

Watanabe may be in a position to pick up individual LDP members fleeing the party like Koichi Yamauchi, but whatever chance that Watanabe would be in a position to provide a political home to a large-scale exodus from the LDP appears to have vanished. Watanabe is in talks with Yamauchi — it's hard to see why Yamauchi wouldn't link up with Watanabe — but Watanabe has been forced to stress his prospective party's focus on "quality over quantity." Nice motto, except that it is difficult to see how his party can make the least bit of difference without an adequate number of members. Indeed, if the LDP's reformists have had a failing over the past several years, it has been their abiding focus on the purity of their principles over building up their numerical strength by compromising with other portions of the party that might share some if not all of their goals.

Watanabe, however, might be able to grab a member from the DPJ. Keiichiro Asao, who has recently gained publicity as the shadow defense minister in the DPJ's "next cabinet," has announced that he will leave the DPJ and campaign as an independent in Kanagawa's fourth district. (Full disclosure: I worked for Asao — especially in his campaign organization in Kanagawa-4 — 2006-2007.) It is ambiguous from press reports precisely what Asao's plan is. There is, after all, a difference between campaigning as an independent and leaving the party. If Asao loses next month, will he remain in the upper house as an independent, or will he return to the DPJ fold? The incumbent in Kanagawa-4 is Hayashi Jun, ostensibly a Koizumi child (he was first elected in 2005), although it appears that Hayashi has solved the reformist's dilemma by not being one: he appears to have positioned himself among the Shinzo Abe-Shoichi Nakagawa conservatives instead of the reformists around Hidenao Nakagawa. Indeed, here he is pictured with General Toshio Tamogami (ret.) at one of Tamogami's speaking engagements. (Incidentally, this reinforces the image of the Abe cabinet as a tenuous coalition of conservatives and reformists, with the conservatives uniting with the bulk of the LDP after Abe's collapse and reformists like Hidenao Nakagawa and Yasuhisa Shiozaki becoming "anti-mainstream.")

It's possible that Asao is confident that his support group is strong enough to draw in the bulk of the DPJ vote in the district, but naturally there is a risk of a split that will enable Hayashi to return to the Diet.

To return to Watanabe, it is possible that Asao could link up with Watanabe. Before Asao decided to leave, Ichiro Ozawa reportedly offered the candidacy in Kanagawa's eighth district, running against Watanabe's partner Eda. The press is interpreting Asao's decision to stay in the fourth district instead of running against Eda as a sign of Asao's willingness to join forces with Watanabe. Perhaps. But he may simply be using the old LDP trick of running as an independent and then rejoining the party should he win the seat — or lose it, as the party would presumably still welcome him back in the upper house seeing as how it needs the seat. Indeed, it was the desire to not lose the seat in the upper house that reportedly led Ozawa to withhold the nomination from Asao.

What Asao's decision does not appear to represent is a fissure within the DPJ. Unlike LDP defectors, Asao appears to be leaving as a matter of personal ambition, not irreconcilable policy differences with the party. As such, I wonder whether he may well make his way back to the DPJ after all. Analysts anticipating a political realignment that consumes both parties should keep looking.

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