from Asia Unbound

Noda’s November Surprise

November 16, 2012

Japan's prime minister Yoshihiko Noda arrives for a lower house plenary session at the parliament in Tokyo November 15, 2012
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Politics and Government

Japan’s prime minister Yoshihiko Noda suddenly announced this Wednesday that he would dissolve the Lower House of parliament, and today marks the end of the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) majority in the Lower House. Opposition criticism of his leadership may have stung, but the long overdue passage of legislation to issue government bonds that should have been uncontested yet again raised questions about Japan’s parliamentary contortions. Noda’s final words repeated what he came into office arguing for—political reform of a government that seems unable to make decisions.

Politicians have been preparing for this moment for months, however. It was unquestioned that Japan was heading for an election; it was simply a matter of when. Both of Japan’s largest parties had reshuffled their leadership, and begun to organize for a Lower House election. The DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held their leadership races in September. The prime minister faced little opposition within his party. Of course, Ozawa Ichiro’s departure in July meant there was little dissension remaining, but fears of more defections continued as the ruling party’s majority dwindled to only four seats. Noda’s party was hanging on by a thread.

In contrast, there was much excitement and anticipation surrounding the selection of the next president of the LDP. The LDP race, which coincided with Japan-China tensions over their island dispute, produced five contenders and ultimately a dramatic run-off vote, the first in forty years. The two leaders left standing after a hearty campaign effort around the country were former prime minister, Abe Shinzo, and the head of the party’s policy research council, Shigeru Ishiba. Abe lost the first round to Ishiba 199 to 141 out of 498 votes cast, in large part because Ishiba carried local LDP party members. In the run-off, where only the 198 LDP Diet members can vote, it was Abe Shinzo who had the upper hand, winning by nineteen votes.

The dissolution of the Diet today means that the election will be held on December 16, with the official campaigning to begin on December 4. Noda’s call for an election has surprised just about everyone, including members of his own party. Politicians of all stripes have been scurrying to get ready for what will undoubtedly be an interesting campaign. A steady trickle of DPJ members has filed into the party secretary’s office to tender their resignations. The opposition LDP is energized and excited, and Ishiba, now party secretary-general, is clearly buoyant at his party’s prospects in this long awaited electoral fight. There are new contenders for power, also.

Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, now leading the Japan Restoration Party, and recently resigned Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, head of the newly formed Sunrise Party, are in talks about leading a ”third option” for reform in the electoral rumble about to unfold. Yet their policy platform remains unclear at this writing.

Japan’s politicians are clearly in their element. Already over 1,000 have registered as candidates from a variety of parties, but the expectation is that this number could double or even triple in the weeks ahead. Less clear, however, is how Japanese voters evaluate the prospect of a new government, or even if they are interested in the contest for leadership of Japan.

In weeks leading up to December 16, I will explore some of the larger themes raised by Noda’s decision to draw the curtain on the DPJ’s first attempt to govern. So much is at stake for Japan in the choice ahead. Perhaps the overarching question is whether Japan’s protracted effort at political reform will continue, and to what end. There are smaller narratives, however. What is the legacy of this first DPJ effort to govern? Does this new “third option” for reforming Japanese politics, led by the leaders of Japan’s two largest urban centers, offer a real alternative for Japanese voters? What are the policies that will motivate the campaign? Who will populate the new LDP, and what lessons has it learned in opposition? And, of course, what does all of this mean for Japan’s foreign policy, especially for the U.S.-Japan relationship?

Much to discuss, but today it is enough to say that, like the United States and China, Japan too will have new leaders in 2012. Unlike Washington, there are multiple and proliferating parties to choose from in Japan’s parliamentary process. More importantly, unlike Beijing, it will be a democratic contest for national leadership. Messy and chaotic, for sure, but Prime Minister Noda has given us quite a lot to think about.