A somewhat jet-lagged Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda returned to Tokyo late Thursday after a trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, amidst growing signs that long anticipated elections could be postponed for quite some time, perhaps as late as next summer.
On Friday, Noda will convene a plenary meeting of ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) Diet members to vote on the new party leadership nominated by Noda following his September 21 reelection as DPJ president.
Noda is expected to reshuffle his cabinet early next week.
The mood inside the DPJ is slightly more upbeat these days, despite the party’s continued poor showing in public opinion polls. The opposition Liberal Democrats (LDP) have been unable to capitalize on DPJ woes, exemplified by the party’s decision earlier this week to resurrect former LDP president and prime minister Shinzo Abe as its top leader. Abe’s chief competitor, former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, was the choice of the LDP’s local chapters, and handily won the first round of voting. But the LDP’s Diet members pushed Abe over the top in a second-round runoff, saddling the party with a leader whose reputation remains tarnished because of his controversial resignation in 2007 after less than one year in office.
Abe is expected to fill out his leadership team on Friday, with Ishiba the likely second-in-command as LDP secretary general.
Soon thereafter, the DPJ will sit down with the LDP and its ally, New Komeito, and settle on a schedule to reconvene the Diet. Central to the calculations on both sides will be when to hold elections.
The DPJ hopes to postpone elections as long as possible, hoping to somehow improve its otherwise bleak prospects, while an inconsistent LDP tends to favor going to the polls sooner rather than later.
Technically, no election must be held until next summer, when the four-year term of all 480 Lower House members and the 6 year term of half the Upper House members expire. The only exception would be if the LDP could cobble together a majority of Lower House members in support of a no-confidence motion against Noda, which would force him to resign or dissolve the Lower House. Chances of passage of a no-confidence motion have declined in recent days. Some DPJ leaders are privately musing about scheduling a double-election (Lower House and Upper House) next summer. By contrast, there is considerable (but not full) support inside the LDP of using the opposition’s majority in the Upper House to block key budget legislation and thereby embarrass a politically-frustrated Noda into scheduling elections earlier than he would like.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Until recently, conventional wisdom had it that a three-party agreement involving the DPJ and the LDP-New Komeito allies would allow passage of legislation authorizing issuance of government bonds to finance the remainder of this year’s fiscal budget, which ends in March. In exchange, Noda would dissolve the Lower House and schedule elections for either November or January.
These expectations were based on a commitment Noda had made to Sadakazu Tanigaki, then head of the LDP, to dissolve the Diet in exchange for LDP-New Komeito support for a rise in the nation’s consumption tax. With respect to the timing of an election, Noda used a vague term meaning “soon” or “at an early date.” The consumption tax legislation passed.
But Tanigaki subsequently helped orchestrate a non-binding vote of no-confidence against Noda in the Upper House, and did not run for reelection as LDP president. (LDP promotion of the no-confidence measure confused many voters, since it seemed to amount to the LDP censuring itself after having cooperated with Noda on the consumption tax legislation.)
Noda, with the strong backing of DPJ secretary general Azumi Koshiishi, argues that his commitment was to Tanigaki, who is no longer in office, making the commitment null-and-void. Abe, after his election as LDP president, insisted that Noda’s commitment was to “voters,” not to Tanigaki personally, indicating he intends to play hardball with Noda and try to force early elections.
Noda is playing hardball as well. When he announced his new DPJ leadership lineup, Noda kept Koshiishi on as secretary general, sending a clear signal that he backs the latter’s stance against an early election.
A political cartoon in the Asahi Shimbun recently goofed on this wacky situation by satirically sponsoring a “national language survey,” asking readers to discern Noda’s definition of “soon.”
THE UPPER HAND: Several factors will determine the timing of elections. For a while, Noda seemed particularly vulnerable to a no-confidence vote. Due to defections, the DPJ has seen its Lower House majority dwindle from a high of 308 seats down to some 247. Seven defections more would deny the DPJ the ability to block a no-confidence motion. However, the DPJ leader who seemed most likely to leave with some followers was former interior minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi, who challenged Noda for the DPJ presidency. But Haraguchi has since announced that he plans to remain within the DPJ, reducing the immediate danger to the DPJ of falling below 240 Lower House seats.
The LDP and Komeito could decide to block critical legislation, in an attempt to paint Noda as politically incapable of managing the government. But that could be a risky strategy, as voters could easily see the LDP as putting party interests ahead of national interests, and hold it against the LDP in the subsequent elections.
By contrast, Noda wants his government to appear to be governing in a responsible manner, in part by drafting a budget for next fiscal year, and overall stretching out events, and promoting some semblance of unity and policy coherence in an otherwise fractious DPJ. The DPJ has virtually no hope of maintaining its Lower House majority in the next election. It’s likely no party will win a majority, meaning the government will be formed by some sort of coalition. Noda’s hope seems to be for the DPJ to emerge as a viable force that must be dealt with in coalition negotiations, and perhaps even work with the LDP and Komei in a revived three-party cooperative arrangement.
Abe seems less-inclined than his rival, Ishiba, to work with the DPJ, and more inclined to promote cooperation with the fledgling Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), formed by Osaka’s maverick mayor Toru Hashimoto. For a while it seemed as if Hashimoto’s group would be a power to be reckoned with in the next Diet. But Hashimoto is showing some signs of being a flash-in-the-pan, with polls showing his popularity waning.
Moreover, local LDP chapters are not happy with the prospect of sharing much of anything with the upstart Restoration Party, putting a major obstacle in front of whatever plans Abe may have in that regard.
It’s clear elections in Japan will be held no later than next summer. And it seems pretty clear the next government will be a coalition of some sort. For now, everything else in Japanese politics these days remains pretty much up in the air.