Japan's political world was rocked Monday by the twin resignations of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan's leader, Ichiro Ozawa, and his top lieutenant, Yuko Hatoyama. Mr. Ozawa has spent the last 15 years forming a succession of parties in a quest to dethrone the Liberal Democratic Party from its position atop Japanese politics--a spot it's held for the past half-century. Just when it looked like he would achieve his goal, a fundraising scandal involving his top aide has apparently brought him down. Whether his foibles will doom his party's chances to reshape Japan's political map remains to be seen.
Japan's political system has been in flux for the better part of the last decade and a half, in no small part due to Mr. Ozawa. The LDP received an electoral boost during the 2001-2006 administration of the popular Junichiro Koizumi, who as recently as this month topped a public opinion poll that asked who should become Japan's next prime minister. Since Mr. Koizumi stepped down, the LDP has hemorrhaged support, with two prime ministers in a row resigning due to political paralysis and scandal. Current Prime Minister Taro Aso saw his public support plummet to less than 20% until Mr. Ozawa's scandal hit in March. Since then, Mr. Aso's numbers have inched up (yet are still under 30%), while Mr. Ozawa's have dropped.
Mr. Ozawa resigned in the name of "party unity" and to boost the chances that the DPJ will win a majority later this year in Japan's powerful lower house of parliament. If this happens, the DPJ would control both houses and gain the premiership. Political pundits Monday claimed Mr. Ozawa's resignation is just what the DPJ needs to put a fresh face at the top of its ticket and appeal to voters tired of the same old clubby politics.
Yet Japan's political future may not be decided so simply, for several reasons. First, no one is sure how Japan's voters will react to Mr. Ozawa's resignation over the medium-term. They may be more likely to view the DPJ as little more than a clone of the LDP, with the same corruption problems, lack of stable leadership and inability to focus on the real issues of concern to the public, such as health, education and economic opportunity. Indeed, one of the DPJ's main problems is that it was founded and largely populated by ex-LDP members, and many Japanese voters see it as little different from the ruling party. Mr. Ozawa labored in recent years to change that impression, largely through an aggressive platform of support for working families, shrinking the income gap, and talking about greater independence from the United States. That platform helped the DPJ take control of the upper house of parliament in July 2007, thus bringing about a period of political paralysis in Japan.
Secondly, the DPJ itself is riven with factions, largely between the older guard represented by Messrs. Ozawa and Hatoyama, young turks like Seiji Maehara and Akihisa Nagashima and former members of Japan's Socialist Party. While ex-DPJ head Katsuya Okada is considered a front-runner to replace Mr. Ozawa, party members locked out of the ruling circle until now could also challenge for the leadership. Moreover, without Mr. Ozawa at the helm, the party's platform may be up for grabs, potentially diluting its message to voters. The DPJ also has had trouble in the past fielding candidates in all precincts, and its current woes may make it difficult to attract fresh talent.
No one, however, should think that Mr. Ozawa's resignation is the break for which the ruling LDP has been waiting. The LDP has been on the defensive for the past two years and shows no signs of finding new leadership or policies that appeal to the average voter. Mr. Aso has a hold on power within his party largely because no one else is interested in captaining a ship so obviously taking on water. Few analysts believe the LDP can maintain its two-thirds majority in parliament in elections this year. It will either slip into the minority or maintain a bare majority that will be flummoxed by the stonewalling tactics the DPJ has used effectively since 2007.
It may yet turn out that the thought of a new DPJ leadership is enough to drive a majority of voters over to the opposition. However, Japan's electorate might also become lukewarm to both parties and vote to largely keep the system as it is. That would be the worst possible outcome, for it would mean continued policy paralysis in the world's second-largest economy and an endless focus on winning the next election.
Japan, which is in the midst of its worst recession in postwar history, desperately needs aggressive action to stabilize its economy. It also needs to reassure its partners, especially the U.S., that it will remain engaged in regional and global issues, carry through commitments to support military realignment with the U.S., and play a role in global economic recovery. If the new leader of the DPJ can do that, then his party very well might win a victory that puts Japan on a new road.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.