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Your Party Is Not for Everyone

SNA (Tokyo) — For quite some time Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party has seemed like one of the less dysfunctional Japanese opposition parties. Larger opposition parties like the DPJ had lost any recognizable policy identity, whereas Your Party’s commitment to free market economics, deregulation, and decentralization was rather consistent. And, unlike the Social Democratic Party or Japan Communist Party, Your Party’s agenda was sufficiently mainstream and conservative that at least part of The Establishment, especially the business sector, could conceivably embrace them.

One rarely heard about any fights among lawmakers within Your Party. For the most part, they put up a unified front and seemed to have their act together in comparison with their fractious rivals.

Kenji Eda

Kenji Eda (SNA)

The biggest blow to Your Party’s image of unity came last September when three of its lawmakers defected to the Japan Restoration Party at the time of its founding. The other exception was the occasional reports of feuding between Yoshimi Watanabe and the party’s number two man, Secretary-General Kenji Eda.

One frustration we had was that Japanese newspapers would occasionally allude to the fact that personal relations between the two men were not good, but the substance of the disagreements was never made clear. What were the policy fault lines that divided them? We didn’t know.

We did surmise correctly, however, that one part of the dispute related to Yoshimi Watanabe’s dictatorial management of party affairs. Eda would understandably be discontent if his position as the party’s number two executive meant little in terms of the weight with which his advice was disposed of.

One benefit of the recent open fight between Watanabe and Eda is that we finally got a peek into the internal politics of Your Party and understand better what they are really thinking.

Signs of trouble emerged almost immediately after the House of Councillors elections on July 21. In his press conference on the 23rd, Secretary-General Kenji Eda laid out a vision to journalists that he was well aware did not reflect the views of his party leader: “I would like our party to take the lead in proactively advancing the cause of political realignment, because a realignment is certainly needed. Rather than aiming at the level of holding a casting vote, we must create a political party with the ability to take over government from the LDP at the next general election.”

But his challenge did not end there, as Eda declared his intention to “reform” the governance of Your Party itself, pointing directly at Yoshimi Watanabe as the main problem. He said that the whole process of selecting candidates for the elections and the use of political funds was opaque. It would seem that Watanabe’s grip on party power was so tight that even his own secretary-general didn’t know what was going on.

The following day, the 24th, it was revealed that Eda had met secretly with DPJ Secretary-General Goshi Hosono and JRP parliamentary representative Yorihisa Matsuno on Election Day and that the three men decided that a political realignment was needed and that they would set up a “study group” to figure out how it could be accomplished.

Yoshimi Watanabe then started to respond publicly; he pointed out that outside auditors checked on party finances so there was no problem with information disclosure.

Watanabe also received important backing from Your Party policy chief Keiichiro Asao who took direct aim at Eda: “It is irresponsible for an executive to raise these kinds of issues in front of lawmakers at a time when our basic direction hasn’t yet been decided,” he said.

The main strategic disagreement between Watanabe and Eda was focused on Japan Restoration Party co-leader Toru Hashimoto. Watanabe’s earlier courtship of Hashimoto is ancient history and the Your Party leader now believes strongly that Hashimoto should be kept as far away as possible from his own organization. Eda, on the other hand, sees Hashimoto as someone whose political aims are broadly in line with the ideals of Your Party and as a politician who could still be a congenial colleague.

For his part, Toru Hashimoto made it clear on the 24th that he supported the idea of combining the JRP, Your Party, and the anti-labor union sections of the DPJ into a new and larger opposition party.

At any rate, tempers really flared the next day, July 25, when Your Party held a General Meeting of all of its lawmakers. Watanabe was accused by Eda of ignoring party procedures and selecting election candidates according to his own whim. He also proposed that a special investigative committee be established to reform party management. Watanabe responded, and the argument between himself and Eda became so heated that Katsuhiko Eguchi, the chair of the meeting, asked both of them to leave the room so that other party lawmakers could speak more freely. A strange atmosphere resulted in which the Your Party General Meeting continued on with its two top leaders absent.

Neither man hid his feelings at the press conferences that followed the General Meeting. With bitter sarcasm, Eda declared, “My mission now is to gain corporate status for ‘Watanabe’s Private Shop,’” referring to the dictatorial way in which the leader ran party affairs. When asked about his secret meeting with his DPJ and JRP counterparts, Eda stated, “An exchange of opinions with other parties is necessary. I have no obligation to report every scrap of table talk to our party leader.”

When Watanabe was asked the same question about Eda’s secret meeting with the DPJ and JRP executives, he responded, “It was extremely unwelcome. If he sees his political fortunes lying with them then his proper course would be to resign as secretary-general.”

The two also argued about the more fundamental point; Watanabe criticized Eda’s “rough and ready” plan to merge opposition parties, saying that it was hasty and exactly the kind of thing that had earlier destroyed the DPJ. Eda shot back, “What is so hasty about it? Your Party was founded on the principle of seeking political realignment. If we don’t take the lead and hold discussions with other parties, then realignment cannot be realized.”

The next day, the 26th, Yoshimi Watanabe and Kenji Eda met face-to-face for about an hour to see if they could patch up their differences. Watanabe offered an olive branch when he told Eda that he would present his own party administration reform plan to the party executives on the 30th. Eda accepted that approach. However, the rift between the two men could not be repaired when it came to Eda’s secret meeting with the DPJ and JRP. Watanabe was suspicious of Eda’s actions and asked for a full report of what he had discussed with Hosono and Matsuno. Eda refused to answer clearly, but asserted that it was mostly just casual talk over tea that had no impact on party affairs. Watanabe responded that Eda’s description of the meeting “made no sense” as certainly something of significance must have been discussed among the three men. Watanabe became angry enough that he began hinting that Eda might be booted as secretary-general.

At the Your Party executive meeting on July 30, Yoshimi Watanabe set forth some party governance reform proposals as he had promised. Eda praised these proposals as showing “progress” and indicated that he was more-or-less satisfied on that point. But the argument on political realignment continued as before. Eda was now describing Watanabe as being “passive” on realignment, while Watanabe explained his reasoning as follows: “This process of blindly making and breaking of political parties has been continuous since the time of the New Frontier Party. We need to learn some lessons from this history of failure.”

Although the strategic disagreement endured, most reports suggested that a kind of “truce” was setting in between Watanabe and Eda at the end of July.

That mood abruptly changed on August 5 when Watanabe announced that unless Eda expressed willingness to conform to his party strategy within the next two days, he would seek a majority vote at the next General Meeting to have Eda removed as secretary-general. Watanabe noted that Your Party had done pretty well under his stewardship so far. When he was reelected as party leader last September, there were only 13 Your Party lawmakers. Now there are 36 lawmakers in the party.

It was those same 36 lawmakers who had to decide whether or not to remove Eda from the party’s number two post. In that straight confrontation, Watanabe won the battle and Eda was stripped of his executive position. Still, although a majority backed Watanabe, it appears that more than 10 of the 36 supported Eda, so the division remains a serious matter.

Keiichiro Asao was promoted to the secretary-general’s position and Kenichi Mizuno took over as party policy chief.

After the action against Eda was completed, Yoshimi Watanabe faced the media and gave a pretty clear account of the reasons for his decision to seek his removal: “Our approach toward political realignment is different,” Watanabe explained, “and our relationship of trust has been broken.”

More specifically, Watanabe indicated that he remained dissatisfied with Eda’s “insufficient” explanation about his meeting with his DPJ and JRP counterparts, and that Eda was persistently lacking respect for Watanabe’s judgment that any tie-up with Toru Hashimoto would be a dangerous one and must be avoided. Watanabe said another reason for Eda’s dismissal was that by going public with his criticisms of party management, Eda had engaged in behavior unfit for a party secretary-general.

Kenji Eda left the meeting saying all the right things: “I intend to follow the personnel assignments given by the organization. I have absolutely no thought of leaving the party. I will continue to work toward political realignment as a single foot soldier. My mission is to create a political force that can replace the LDP.”

So Your Party will hang together for now under the firm hand of Yoshimi Watanabe, but we have learned through all of these struggles that this party too has a major fault line running through it that could easily break it apart in the near future. It would seem that about 1/3 of the party lawmakers are dissatisfied with Watanabe and are still willing to tie up with Toru Hashimoto under the right circumstances.

As a result, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the Your Party fault line splits.