Party A Party B
Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

Party A vs. Party B

Seiji Maehara, the former DPJ president who has been viewed as a possible defector from the DPJ, said in a TV appearance Thursday evening that "even if the DPJ loses the election, it will absolutely not break apart." I have long been skeptical of the willingness of Maehara and his fellow conservatives to defect from the DPJ, particularly when the DPJ has been ahead in public opinion polls. Maehara's remarks are yet another reminder that the DPJ — often criticized as being as divided as the LDP — is more unified than the party's critics acknowledge. Moreover, it suggests that a political realignment after the general election is far from inevitable.

Rather what we are witnessing is simply part of the evolution of a mostly two-party system. A post at The Economist's Democracy in America blog is useful on this point.

Questioning the importance of a coherent governing philosophy for either the Republican or the Democratic Party, the anonymous blogger notes:

The American political system all but guarantees dominance by two stable parties over time, but there's no sound reason to think that two basic ideological frameworks adequately represent the diversity of citizens' political views, even in a very rough sense. And, of course, the actual platforms of the two 'modern' parties—which is to say, the parties boasting the names 'Republican' and 'Democratic'—have fluctuated wildly over time. What if we dispensed with any pretense of ideological content and simply branded them 'Party A' and 'Party B'?

Party A and Party B? That actually sounds like a fairly good description of the Japanese political system. Indeed, given the ideological polarization within American politics it is a better account of Japanese politics than American politics.

The DPJ is often criticized for being "LDP-lite," but that implies the LDP has a stable identity to which the DPJ can be compared. The LDP may be the world's most successful big-tent party, having succeeded in preserving an ideologically diverse coalition for more than a half century. Perhaps the key to its success has been that the ratio of pragmatic moderates (i.e., pork-barrellers) to ideologues has long been skewed in favor of the former. Whether this is still the case is an open question, but the LDP has succeeded by being less ideological than its rivals. The DPJ, like the LDP, has its share of ideologues — of the left and the right — but like the LDP it will enjoy more success the more it is "Party B" to the LDP's "Party A." Of course, the more success the DPJ has had at selling itself as "Party B" the more imperative it has been for the LDP to sell itself as "Party A." Thus past elections saw both parties trumpeting "reform" on their campaign posters. (Indeed, back when I was doing campaign work I remember seeing posters for LDP and DPJ candidates side by side, each poster proclaiming the candidate's commitment to 改革. Alas, no picture.) And this election will see the two parties committing over which is more sensitive to the concerns of the average citizen, which is more opposed to the consequences of the Koizumi reforms, which party offers the kinder, gentler reform package. Both parties promise to punish the bureaucracy. Both parties have punted on tax reform.

Party A The LDP will no doubt respond to this situation by borrowing from Karl Rove's 2004 strategy for the re-election of George W. Bush, using swine flu and North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons tests to appeal to voters' fears of an uncertain world — and suggest that now is no time to trust an untested, immature party like the DPJ with power. The LDP flirted with this approach in the 2007 upper house election, but as that election was not a general election, the fear card did not have the same salience. Kunio Hatoyama, minister of internal affairs and communication and brother of DPJ leader Yukio (and possibly friend of a friend of terrorists ), said after North Korea's nuclear test this week that under the DPJ "the country cannot be protected." To make this argument he continued to cite Ichiro Ozawa's February remarks about one day reducing the US presence in Japan to the Seventh Fleet. No doubt we'll be hearing those remarks cited out of context up until the general election.

The fact that LDP officials keep referencing Ozawa's remarks may be evidence of how little the LDP has to gone on in trying to argue that electing the DPJ would be risky in these dangerous times. In reality, the DPJ has given remarkably little ammunition to the LDP: it is no less enthusiastic about recovering the abductees than the LDP, it has balanced criticism of China with outreach to Beijing, especially under Ozawa, and it is open to autonomous defense capabilities and, as mentioned in this post , preemptive strikes against North Korea. Nevertheless, the LDP will try to paint the DPJ as irresponsible, irresolute, and pacifistic when it comes to the defense of Japan.

If fear is not enough to win the election for the LDP, it will ultimately come down to intangibles, with the DPJ's benefiting from being just different enough from the LDP to unseat it from power. (Party B! The choice of a new generation?)

Other posts by Tobias Harris: