new party
Illustration: Phil Couzens

The LDP's first steps towards a new party

A week after the Liberal Democratic Party suffered its first ever electoral defeat, a new party is already taking shape from the ashes.

The biggest change, of course, is the final demise of the factions as a force within the party. As Yuriko Koike said earlier this week upon announcing her departure from the Machimura faction, "The age of the factions is over."

Having already given way to ideological groupings before the election, it is increasingly likely that LDP members will associate more with others sharing their ideas instead of joining factions. Hidenao Nakagawa, an important player in this transition before the election who called for the dissolution of the factions earlier this week, has announced that he will call a meeting of reformists — including Yasuhisa Shiozaki, former chief cabinet secretary — on Monday.

Koichi Yamauchi, a former LDP member who won a PR seat this year for Yoshimi Watanabe's Your Party, has some thoughts about ideological groups within the LDP. One, he says, is the "pure conservative" group of hawks clustered around Taro Aso and Shinzo Abe, about which he says that in their focus upon ideological conflict with the left wing — symbolized by their hatred for Nikkyoso — they will have a difficult time broadening the party's popularity. Another group, led, he says, would be a "liberal" group. Led by Sadakazu Tanigaki, it would resemble the DPJ, with a focus on regions and the creation of a "twentieth-century-style" welfare state. (I'm not quite sure what he means by the label twentieth-century-style.) The third, led by Nakagawa and Shiozaki, is a neo-liberal group, emphasizing small government, administrative reform, economic growth, and free markets. Yamauchi makes clear that he approves of the third as providing the best contrast with the DPJ, which he caricatures as a pork-barreling, big government and twentieth-century-style welfare state-supporting, anti-market, anti-American, anti-globalization political party.

Whatever one thinks as Yamauchi's ideas about which path the LDP should take, his classification scheme is useful. In the forthcoming party election, LDP members will pick one of these courses.

The least coherent is Yamauchi's second group, the "liberal" group. Revealingly, Tanigaki's candidacy for the LDP presidency has the backing of Yoshiro Mori, whose power within the party may have been enhanced by his having narrowly won his single-member district last week — even though Tanigaki does not yet have the support of his own faction, the Koga faction. That Mori would indicate his support for a candidate not from his Machimura faction is a sign of that the power of factions is weakening, but it also suggests that the liberal group is not quite liberal — rather it is the "change as little as possible" group. What, after all, is Mori's ideology? Under the leadership of this group, the LDP's ideological identity would be blurry. While the other two choices would pursue a course of opposing the DPJ at every turn, drawing sharp distinctions between the LDP and the DPJ, the middle group would be a bit more "constructive," answering the government's plans with drafts of its own, perhaps using foreign policy as the issue to separate the two parties.

In short, the LDP's debates are going to resemble the DPJ's debates over the past decade. Should the LDP be "constructivist" or "oppositionist?" The problem for the LDP is that the "oppositionist" line preferred by the conservatives and neo-liberals concedes considerable ground to the DPJ in policy terms, because it means focusing on issues that are less important to the Japanese public than the issues stressed by the DPJ. But this may be a temporary problem.

If the DPJ is successful in power, the oppositionists will be eventually forced to adapt or will be eliminated as the LDP struggles to return to power. Much as the Labour Party became New Labour and the Conservatives have become New Labour-Lite under David Cameron, so the LDP will be forced to become a new LDP that both accepts the changes introduced by a DPJ government and finds a way to critique the DPJ for the inevitable policy failures and corruption scandal that will emerge the longer the party stays in power.

But for now, the oppositionist approach may be the most satisfying as the party tries to reorganize after defeat. I expect that LDP members may be tempted to support a strict oppositionist candidate in this month's presidential election, which would be a natural continuation of the demonization of the DPJ that was central to the party's general election campaign strategy. Will Shigeru Ishiba, a policy wonk trying to position himself as the front runner in the race to replace Aso, be able to tap into the vein of resentment against the DPJ present in large portions of the party?

Ishiba doesn't fit comfortably in any of the aforementioned ideological veins. He is best known as a hawk and a self-described "defense otaku," but he is a defense policy wonk; his hawkishness differs from the cultural hawkishness of Abe and Aso, who view a strong defense more as a cultural imperative than as a "mere" policy matter. He is not particularly well-connected to the neo-liberal group, but he is not particularly traditionalist either. In short, he may be the perfect leader to revive the LDP — if not today, then eventually. He may have a hard time assembling the necessary votes this time around.

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