Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

The battle for "reform"

In remarkably little time, the LDP has swung from doomed to ebullient and now once again is showing its age and fragility. And all it took was a nominal change in leadership in the DPJ.

Yoshihide Suga and Hidenao's Nakagawa's campaign to ban hereditary politics from the LDP has proved to be immensely detrimental for Taro Aso's push to unify the party, with the ironic twist that the proposal gained support beyond the ranks of the reformists as a means of getting at Junichiro Koizumi, whose son is poised to inherit his seat. The proposal is on hold for the time being, as the LDP's Reform Headquarters, headed by Koizumi loyalist Tsutomu Takebe, has issued a final report on the proposal in which it declined to offer a timeline for introducing a ban on the inheritance of seats (or, more properly, candidacies).

More significantly, Nakagawa and the reformists are battling with the LDP's leadership over the contents of the party's manifesto, especially as it pertains to administrative reform. Nakagawa has created yet another study group devoted to administrative reform, this one with twenty-nine members. He is also circulating a petition calling for a more rigorous administrative reform bill than that on offer from the Aso government — Nakagawa insists that there is no time to waste, that the current extended Diet session is the time for radical adminstrative reform, that waiting until after a general election (you know, after the election in which the LDP may be defeated) is too late.

Nakagawa also insists that his target is the DPJ, not the prime minister. For instance, he has declined to sign the petition aimed at rescheduling the LDP's presidential election so that it is held before the general election. Indeed, Nakagawa wants to re-fight the 2005 postal election as a means of questioning the DPJ's commitment to administrative reform. The LDP ought to stand behind the Koizumi postal reform, he argues, as the first step in the direction of comprehensive administrative reform — and as a surefire way to distinguish the LDP from the DPJ. (The immediate question at hand is whether to retain Yoshifumi Nishikawa as head of Japan Post to shepherd the new company through to privatization.)

Nakagawa and his compatriots have no shortage of zeal, but zeal is no substitute for votes, party leadership posts, and ministerial portfolios. The LDP has spent the past four years running from Koizumi, isolating his supporters, readmitting the so-called "opposition forces," and more or less abandoning the agenda that served to get the current ruling super majority elected in the first place. This is the big question surrounding Nakagawa and the other reformists. Are they the heralds of a new LDP that will emerge from the ashes of the old? Are they the last remnants of Koizumi's failed experiment to build a new LDP? The core of a reformist party that will emerge after the next general election? Perhaps it is too early to tell which description is right, but I am inclined to think that Nakagawa's battle to once again cast the LDP as the reform party is unlikely to succeed.

It is not just that the LDP has retreated from Koizumi, to the point of Prime Minister Aso's explicitly distancing his government from his predecessor's, but also that the DPJ isn't the enemy of reform that Nakagawa has long maintained it is. On the face of it, the LDP should have a tough time arguing that a party that has never held power is an enemy of change while a party that has held power for a half century can be the most effective agent of change. If Koizumi had actually won his battle for the party, perhaps this notion would not seem so far-fetched, but as things stand, the LDP cannot surpass the DPJ as the part of "change." Nakagawa might dismiss the DPJ's plans as mere rhetoric — rhetoric that is more or less identical to his own — but he has yet to make the case that his own reform ideas are anything but rhetoric, given his anti-mainstream status within the Aso LDP.

Of course, the DPJ actually has plans for change, most notably its ideas for unifying party and cabinet should it take power. The DPJ has had a comprehensive transition plan since 2003, a plan which clearly reflects lessons learned from LDP rule, the central themes of which will be outlined in a forthcoming article by Naoto Kan in Chuo Koron. Keeping powerful figures — whether formally or informally powerful — in the ruling party out of the government undermines the government. The idea is also to beef up the cabinet and its ministers, at the expense of senior bureaucrats and perhaps one might argue the prime minister's office. The DPJ in effect intends to give life to Article 65 of the constitution, by which "executive power...[is] vested in the Cabinet." Perhaps the most notable change would be transferring responsibility for the budget compilation process to the cabinet, presumably going beyond the administrative reform that shifted some macro-budgeting responsibilities to the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.

It is revealing, however, that the DPJ's reform plan dates from 2003, having survived the admittance of Ichiro Ozawa to the party and his rise and fall as party president. Indeed, Ozawa's zeal for administrative reform of the kind found in the party program meant that war with Kasumigaseki became ever more central to the party's plans for "regime change." And so it remains despite Ozawa's resignation as party president. The party's message going into the election is remarkably clear: administrative reform in the interest of making government more responsive to the voice of the people. Tellingly, the DPJ will retain its 2007 campaign slogan, "The people's livelihoods are number one." (In other words, it's the economic insecurity, stupid.)

Of course, despite the DPJ's unambiguous message, the general election will not be about policy. as I've argued recently. The campaign will instead feature attempts to muddy the other side's message, to question the others' ability to follow through on their rhetorical commitments to administrative reform and measures to ease economic insecurity. It will not be a particularly enlightening campaign, and it will tell us little about how a DPJ-led government will fare in power.

But then, the question remains. Should this year's general election be a referendum on the DPJ's fitness to govern? Or the LDP's record in power? Having shifted Ozawa into a supporting role, the DPJ has with remarkably little effort made judgment of the LDP's time in office as the dominant narrative of this year's campaign.

Other posts by Tobias Harris: