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The Big Fizzle

Hosokawa Friend

Junichiro Koizumi and Morihiro Hosokawa (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — The script has all the right drama: Two former Japanese prime ministers, deeply disappointed by their bungling successors, rise from comfortable retirement to do political battle once more. And, yes, there is good cause too: The ideologically pro-nuclear Abe administration studiously ignores the profound anti-nuclear sentiment of the post 3.11 era, and instead tries to push through the policies championed by financially-interested big business leaders, some security hawks, and a handful of idiosyncratic analysts.

The panic of the ruling party was clear when first it became known that former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa would emerge from rural Kyushu to run on an anti-nuclear platform in the Tokyo gubernatorial race, with none other than popular (and populist) former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at his side. They said it was unfair; they said it was irresponsible; they said it was insane–in short, they were really, really worried there for a little while.

But now, just a week before the Tokyo gubernatorial elections are held, its perfectly apparent that they needn’t have worried nearly so much. As usual, Japanese conservatives have that secret weapon that has bailed them out time and time again–the utter political incompetence of the Japanese liberal-left.

Newspaper polls indicate that the candidate favored by the ruling coalition, Yoichi Masuzoe, is well ahead of all of his rivals. There is little doubt that he will jog across the finish line and win an easy victory, in spite of what should be a formidable pair of former prime ministers going directly against him.

One major problem for the opposition is that Morihiro Hosokawa, though he possesses a compelling pedigree, is a pathetic candidate. Anyone who has seen him action during this campaign is likely to come away with the picture of a tired old man rather than a bold political insurgent. When he is paired with Koizumi in his street speeches, the contrast is particularly striking–only Koizumi shows the fire, the passion, and the charisma that could make this thing work. But Koizumi isn’t the candidate; and the Tokyo voters do understand the distinction.

Frankly, it’s not clear that Hosokawa was ever a very talented politician in the first place, even during his celebrated heyday of the early 1990s. The Liberal Democratic Party’s fall from power in 1993 was mostly the product of Ichiro Ozawa’s defection from the ruling party, rather than an actual victory at the polls for the Hosokawa-led Japan New Party and its opposition confederates. The main accomplishment of Hosokawa’s August 1993-April 1994 administration was that it existed as a rare non-LDP government of Japan, not that it achieved any particular policy goals. The impression conveyed by much of Hosokawa’s career is one of listlessness, even when he was surrounded by high drama.

Morihiro Hosokawa did manage to pick up the endorsement of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan in that first wave of excitement created by his unexpected candidacy for the post of Tokyo Governor. The DPJ had been leaning, without excitement, toward simply following the LDP and New Komeito in endorsing presumed frontrunner Yoichi Masuzoe, but Hosokawa’s sudden reemergence gave them an exciting alternative that momentarily swept them away.

The huge problem, however, was that the DPJ failed to coordinate its rapid swing with the powerful Rengo labor union federation, which is nearly the only political force that is preserving the DPJ from total irrelevance in national affairs.

Rengo chief Nobuaki Koga blasted the DPJ leadership for incompetence in its decision-making processes, and Rengo Tokyo broke with its usual pattern and endorsed Masuzoe’s candidacy instead of that of the DPJ-backed Hosokawa.

There seem to be three factors involved in Rengo’s decision. First, the Abenomics push for higher worker salaries has created an unusual confluence of interest with the ruling LDP, which usually backs the standard big business line that salaries must always be held down. Second, some pro-nuclear labor unions oppose the anti-nuclear focus of the Hosokawa candidacy. The third factor–which Masuzoe himself convincingly cites as the decisive one–is that Yoichi Masuzoe has a long record of constructive relations with Rengo and is a politician that they trust.

At any rate, the city of Tokyo has conservative voters that will always vote for the conservatives, liberal voters who will vote for the liberals, and then a much bigger group of “floating voters” who, as the name suggests, will drift this way and that.

This being the case, there are only so many votes available for an anti-Abe candidate to pull down in Tokyo. With the LDP and New Komeito endorsements, Yoichi Masuzoe was always going to a highly formidable candidate. For an insurgent candidate to derail him, it was necessary that all the liberal voters and a goodly portion of the floating voters be united behind the alternative.

And this is where the liberal-left failure is most evident: Instead of running one candidate who had a real prospect of defeating Masuzoe, they ran two candidates that will split the liberal vote and make Masuzoe’s victory a certainty. Indeed, the most recent polls suggest that Kenji Utsunomiya and Morihiro Hosokawa are going to the split the liberal vote almost directly down the middle.

The SNA had the opportunity at Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan press conferences last week to ask both candidates the question of why they couldn’t unify their candidacies and make a real run at the governorship.

Hosokawa’s response was that, in fact, Utsunomiya campaign staff members had repeatedly contacted his office and requested a meeting to discuss some kind of cooperation, but that he had refused such a meeting out of concern that the public might believe some kind of secret deal was in the offing. He then suggested that his campaign was much more focused on anti-nuclear policies than that of Kenji Utsunomiya, who had a list of other policy priorities put on the same level as anti-nuclearism.

Utsunomiya’s answer did not contradict that of Hosokawa: He said that he had wanted “debates” with Mr. Hosokawa to be held in front of citizen groups so that they could decide which candidate to support, but that Hosokawa had rebuffed these overtures. It did not sound like these “debates” would necessarily lead to a unified candidacy. Moreover, Utsunomiya then criticized Junichiro Koizumi, who as prime minister had advanced free market policies that had increased poverty and wealth disparity. He said he feared that Hosokawa would pursue similar policies as Tokyo Governor. Additionally, Utsunomiya cited the importance of vigorously investigating corruption charges against former Governor Naoki Inose. To top it off, Utsunomiya then disagreed with the basic premise of the question–he was going to win this election outright.

We are pretty certain that the longer the campaign period would go on, the stronger Utsunomiya would fare and the weaker Hosokawa would fare, and it is possible that Utsunomiya will surprise a lot of observers by scratching out a second-place finish on February 9, pushing Hosokawa to an embarrassing third place. But that will be little more than a footnote in history as Yoichi Masuzoe takes his victory bows on that evening.

Neither Morihiro Hosokawa with his long-in-the-tooth campaign ineptitude, nor Kenji Utsunomiya with his inflexible ideologies, are going to make a bit of progress in what they both say is their goal–to put a serious check on the runaway Abe administration. Indeed, when all is said and done it would not be unreasonable for Abe and his team to conclude just the reverse: They’ve got little to worry about so long as this pack of old men and ideologues represents the fragmented liberal alternative.

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