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Yoshimi Watanabe Loses His Soul

Watanabe Paper

Yoshimi Watanabe (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Since its foundation in August 2009, Yoshimi Watanabe’s Your Party has been a bit player, but usually an interesting one. What set Your Party apart from a host of many other short-lived outfits was its relatively clear policy identity. This was the party of free enterprise, neoliberal economics, deregulation, and limited, preferably decentralized, government. Watanabe always made much of his “Agenda,” telling voters that the choice for Your Party was not simply about personalities but a vote for a defined set of policies that would be faithfully pursued. The great enemy that Your Party consistently jousted against was Kasumigaseki, the twisted, all-encompassing, anti-democratic central government bureaucracy.

When the Democratic Party of Japan swept into power in September 2009, their own arguments against bureaucratic power sounded very much the same as that of Your Party. Naturally, many commentators asked Watanabe if he was planning to enter the ruling coalition and join then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on an anti-bureaucrat crusade to liberate the natural genius and energy of the Japanese people.

Watanabe roughly dismissed all such suggestions, explaining that the key difference was that the DPJ talked about trimming the power of the bureaucracy, but that Your Party really meant it. He predicted — quite correctly as it turned out — that the bureaucracy would tame the DPJ rather than the DPJ tame the bureaucrats.

The voters rewarded the relative coherence of Your Party’s program by adding to its numbers election by election. From the six lawmakers who survived their first election in August 2009, Your Party had gained the strength of 36 lawmakers as of the end of this July’s House of Councillors election. But that now looks like the high-water mark for these fellows.

Your Party’s main weakness derives from its main strength; which is to say, its leader Yoshimi Watanabe.

As far as we’ve ever been able to tell, at all points in its four-year history, Watanabe has maintained an iron grip on Your Party. It became clear that even candidate selection, usually the preserve of the party secretary-general, was in fact completely under Watanabe’s thumb.

Watanabe could argue — and he frequently did — that his way had produced continuous success and growth for this little party. Why disrupt a winning formula?

But obviously such an approach has its limits, and many lawmakers inside Your Party chafed at their lack of influence over party decision-making. Watanabe should have had the wisdom to understand that the “leave it all to me” approach wouldn’t work forever, but it seems that his nature is simply too authoritarian to fully accept that.

As we have discussed previously, the rise of Toru Hashimoto impacted Your Party greatly. In early 2012, Watanabe offered support to Hashimoto and repeatedly insisted that there was “no difference” between Your Party’s goals and the One Osaka movement’s goals, even suggesting that Your Party could entirely disband and merge with Hashimoto’s forces.

Despite his early recognition of Hashimoto’s potential and his near-total submission to the rising young leader, Watanabe’s reward for his keen perceptiveness was to be kept at arm’s length by the One Osaka leaders and, in August 2012, to be positively humiliated by Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, who cuttingly said of Watanabe and Your Party: “In politics there is a responsibility to get results. We need a team with the ability to govern.”

At that point we predicted that Your Party was in a “terminal crisis” because the rise of Hashimoto, together with the Osaka group’s unwillingness to embrace Watanabe, had largely eliminated the political space in which Your Party had previously operated.

However, it eventually turned out that it was Hashimoto, rather than Watanabe, who was in the more immediate crisis, not because such a crisis was predetermined by the political chessboard (which in fact he should have dominated based on where he stood in mid-2012), but because of Hashimoto’s own personal indiscipline and his addiction to the media spotlight.

The nail in Hashimoto’s political coffin, of course, were his statements on “comfort women” this past July. No one gave a harsher verdict on Hashimoto’s performance than Yoshimi Watanabe. The man who insisted only a year earlier that he was exactly the same as Hashimoto now insisted, with even greater force, that his values were entirely different.

Okay, perhaps Yoshimi Watanabe’s radical turnabout on Toru Hashimoto was understandable: He wasn’t the only one in Japan who was temporarily charmed by the Osaka movement. But if a single u-turn this year is a misfortune, a second u-turn reflects carelessness.

After the July elections, in which the LDP-New Komeito coalition confirmed their lock on power for the next three years, all of the opposition parties, including Your Party, were forced to think carefully about their political strategies going forward.

One powerful stream of thought has it that the DPJ, the JRP, and Your Party should merge into a larger unit in order to have a real chance to take on the LDP behemoth.

Yoshimi Watanabe resisted this approach, and he has some very good reasons for doing so. He compares the merger idea to the Ichiro Ozawa-led New Frontier Party of the mid-1990s, which merged ideologically disparate forces into a larger party before failing at the polls and then falling apart in acrimony. Watanabe’s assessment that a similar merger project today would have a similar outcome is probably correct. We can’t fault him for this insight in this respect.

On the other hand, Watanabe’s authoritarianism within Your Party is indeed his own fault, and finally it led to a breach with his long-time lieutenant, Kenji Eda.

It is not unreasonable that Eda, who was, after all, party secretary-general, ought to have had a major say in party governance. But it appears that he was treated as little more than an errand boy for years on end, and finally he reached his limit. Perhaps it was in part to escape this status that Eda embraced the idea of an opposition merger, finding Yorihisa Matsuno of the JRP and Goshi Hosono of the DPJ as potential collaborators willing to explore the possibilities.

Watanabe, who well understood that a substantial number of Your Party lawmakers were tempted by the concept of a merger, countered with the idea of an opposition alliance that would fall short of a full merger, but preserve the integrity of each organization, even as they worked in harmony.

The relationship between Eda and Watanabe declined to such a point that Eda was finally fired as secretary-general, but it remained unclear if he would actually bolt from Your Party, and, if so, how many other lawmakers would bolt with him.

This was the situation about a month ago when Watanabe made a fateful decision that is likely to destroy Your Party as an independent political force. It began to become apparent in early November that Yoshimi Watanabe was giving up the idea of an opposition party alliance, but was instead fishing for an alliance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling LDP.

Whatever political calculation lay behind Watanabe’s latest maneuver, it is likely to be a fatal mistake.

As part of his attempt to charm the prime minister, Your Party became the only opposition party to fully support the Secrets Protection Bill.

The irony needs to be savored: Your Party was founded on the principle of fierce criticism against the national bureaucracy, Kasumigaseki, and here we have the very same party, four years later, throwing its support behind legislation that represents one of the biggest and boldest power grabs that the bureaucracy has ever attempted. It is legislation that will give bureaucrats greater power to deny information to politicians, and could even result in politicians being sent to prison for revealing to the public certain information that the bureaucrats don’t want to be revealed to the public.

Watanabe himself denies that there is any contradiction at all in his stance, but for a substantial number of Your Party lawmakers, it is the last straw. It is one u-turn too many.

Today Kenji Eda is announcing his resignation from Your Party — and he won’t be the only one.

Yoshimi Watanabe has proven to be a brilliant politician, but like many other brilliant men he clearly doesn’t know when to let go. By courting the Abe administration at the very moment it is turning into a rightwing freak show, Watanabe demonstrated that he has lost his political soul, or maybe that he never really believed in his own rhetoric and was always guided by tactics rather than principles. At any rate, his spell has been broken.

With the departure of Eda and his confederates, Your Party’s era of slow but steady growth comes to a sharp end. And with Watanabe’s jettisoning of the party’s core principle of small government, it’s hard to see how Your Party might have any future at the next elections either.

Most likely, Your Party will be but a memory by the time of the anticipated double elections of July 2016 — that, or a just pathetic rump of its former self.

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