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As Japan Restoration Party Drops, Who Rises?

Hashihara Victory

Ishihara and Hashimoto on the Campaign Trail (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Beyond Toru Hashimoto personally, the contentious comments made by the young Osaka mayor and Japan Restoration Party co-leader are having a powerful effect on the Japanese political world. To take just one poll, the Nihon Keizai Shinbun found that the 9% who had been planning to vote for this political party in the July House of Councillors election before Hashimoto and Ishihara’s comments on comfort women and prostitution has now dropped to only 3%. Most other polls report that Hashimoto’s gaffes cost the party roughly half of its public support.

As several other analysts have noted, the Japan Restoration Party was already talking about a crisis of party support even before Hashimoto shot off his mouth. The party’s dilemma has thus become all that much more acute.

It was only a couple months ago that the Japan Restoration Party was advancing the argument that they, and not the Democratic Party of Japan, should be considered the leading opposition party in the House of Representatives. Indeed, having taken 54 seats to the DPJ’s 57 seats in last December’s general elections, they were breathing down the neck of the former ruling party.

Moreover, from around November 2011, when Toru Hashimoto and his colleagues successfully captured both the governorship and mayorship of Osaka simultaneously against the combined opposition of all of the established political parties (except for New Komeito and Your Party), Tokyo politicians have looked with fear, hope, and great interest in developments in the Kansai. The Japanese political future seemed to be taking shape in the south, and many disparate figures were eager to attach themselves to the rising boy wonder, Toru Hashimoto. Then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda even called them the “termites,” angering Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe most of all.

The Hashimoto phenomenon was perceptibly in decline by last autumn when the Japan Restoration Party was finally formed by the original Osaka movement together with fragments of the DPJ, Your Party, and, ultimately, Shintaro Ishihara’s short-lived Sunrise Party. Still, even if Toru Hashimoto’s magnetic power was weaker than it had been six months earlier, it was still a potent factor in Japanese politics.

And that is the most important point about Toru Hashimoto’s meltdown last month: Japan’s political gravity has been altered. What was a year ago the most powerful point of attraction is now a repellant. The consequences cannot but be huge.

First up is the question of whether or not the Japan Restoration Party can ultimately recover from its recent missteps. We don’t believe that they can. The reason we think so is because Toru Hashimoto’s popularity was the very foundation stone upon which the party was built and united. If the man is no longer popular or respected by his colleagues, and reviled by most of the general public, then what is the glue that will hold this particular group of lawmakers together in one party organization? As we see it, without Hashimoto’s charismatic ability to draw voters, the bonds among these lawmakers will soon come apart, and the party will fail as well.

We would expect the Japan Restoration Party lawmakers to hold together at least as long as to fight the House of Councillors election that is fast approaching, but if they achieve the miserable result that it now looks like they are heading for, then don’t be surprised to see this party begin to crumble as early as the autumn.

As the Japan Restoration Party stumbles, one of the beneficiaries is clearly the DPJ. The impending doubts about which party leads the opposition are being erased, and this will give the confused Democrats a little more time to try to get their act together.

Also, earlier analysis had suggested that there are three major streams within the DPJ, one of them referred to as the “Reform Stream” with an interest in collaborating with Toru Hashimoto. Presumably, this group of DPJ lawmakers is now reassessing their view, and this will probably help party unity to a certain degree; although they may alternatively turn their gaze to Your Party as the standard-bearer of the reform cause.

Indeed, we reckon that Your Party will emerge as the biggest winner from the Hashimoto debacle. They are now the only untarnished force remaining within “third pole” politics, and their quick and decisive separation from Hashimoto last month will likely redound to their political credit down the road.

Issues like regionalism, decentralization, bureaucratic reform, and free market economics are not going to go away, and Your Party is poised to become the clear champion of these policy themes. If a significant part of the Japan Restoration Party’s support base migrates to Your Party, and if the Japanese media decides to pay more attention to them, then Yoshimi Watanabe’s little outfit could become an important force in its own right.

The effect that the Japan Restoration Party’s decline has on the Shinzo Abe government would seem to be mixed. On the one hand, cultural and ideological conservatives who splintered from the LDP in 2009 and 2010 (for example, the supporters of the former Sunrise Party of Japan) may soon find that the old LDP is the only viable place left for them to hang their hats. Reuniting the hard right would seem to benefit the LDP.

On the other hand, without the Japan Restoration Party as a powerful force in the Diet, it becomes much harder to see how Abe’s dream to revise the Japanese constitution can be realized. We discussed on February 20 the “post-election coalition to revise the Constitution,” but with the Japan Restoration Party fading out of the game, that potential coalition no longer appears to exist.

In that sense, you could say that the New Komeito Party, at least at the national level, is also a winner out of Hashimoto’s implosion because now their position as the ruling coalition partners of the LDP both before and after the July elections is quite secure.

The final point that must be made is to note that even if the Japan Restoration Party completely unravels in the months ahead over Hashimoto’s declining popularity, the Osaka movement nevertheless revealed a strong hunger in the Japanese regions for a different kind of politics. The scheme to unite Osaka city and prefecture seems to have gained many adherents. The notion that prefectures should come together into stronger regional units is probably not going to disappear. Even if Toru Hashimoto failed as a party leader, he tapped into something that might be mobilized by other hands in the future.

Perhaps it will be Your Party that picks up these pieces, but that will depend on the quality of their leadership. The DPJ’s new slogan of “Once Again, From the Regions” suggests that they too might compete for this constituency. They would certainly be wise to do so, but the DPJ’s ability to implement any coherent strategy remains in considerable doubt.

But the opportunity – for someone – is there.