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No One’s Party

Asao Yellow

Your Party leader Keiichiro Asao (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Keiichiro Asao is among the most urbane and accessible of Japanese party leaders, and so he is in many ways a man that you want to root for. But in the nearly six months since he took over the leadership role of Your Party he has produced little prospect of a bright future for the organization.

Asao’s emergence as party leader, of course, was never part of the plan. Since Your Party’s foundation in August 2009 it was very much the personal vehicle of Yoshimi Watanabe; and had Watanabe been a little more willing to share the spotlight with his colleagues and to decentralize the party in the same manner that he calls for decentralizing the national administration, then Your Party would likely be sitting reasonably comfortably today with about 35 lawmakers and a clearly identifiable constituency among educated professionals.

Yoshimi Watanabe’s personal implosion has been spectacular. In the summer of 2010 at least one poll showed him as the public’s most popular choice to become the next prime minister. By the beginning of this year, he had chased away his long-time lieutenant Kenji Eda and about a third of the party through his unceasing demand for total personal control of almost every aspect of party management.

In April, Watanabe was hit by a bizarre financial scandal in which he was “loaned” something like US$15 million by prominent businessmen, which he claims were meant for personal expenses, and which have no political ramifications.

Watanabe was nevertheless forced to resign as Your Party leader and responsibility fell into the lap of Keiichiro Asao.

Asao, who is very bright, said and did the right things. He explained how the party would get back to its roots as the champion of small government, tax cuts, deregulation, and decentralization of the national bureaucracy. He quickly held a series of press conferences to try to put the party back on track, suggesting that if the Japanese people really appreciated the policies that Your Party stood for, that they would soon be gathering significant public support.

On the question of political strategy – should the party continue gravitating into the orbit of the Abe administration or should it link up with other opposition parties – Asao’s basic message was that he’d like to keep his options open.

“What is important is implementing the policy,” he said, and Your Party would select its alliances based upon its analysis of what would be the best course for achieving its main policy goal of a smaller government.

As for Yoshimi Watanabe, who retained his Diet seat even after having given up party leadership, Asao noted that Watanabe had declared to the media that “he would like to contribute as a common soldier.” Asao said that he would accept him in that role.

So Keiichiro Asao’s first month as Your Party leader went pretty well. He stabilized the party and provided a reasonable starting point for the rebuilding project to begin.

But in the succeeding months it cannot be said that any discernible progress has been made. There has been no bounce in party support rates and Your Party has now become just another among the scrap heap of minor Japanese opposition parties. Most mention of Your Party today is in the context of opposition party realignment: To which party might its lawmakers go in the future?

The strengths and weaknesses of Keiichiro Asao as a politician have become rather clear. He would be a wonderful cabinet minister who could probably do a good job with almost any policy portfolio, but in the top post as leader he is not the right man.

Asao’s problem is that he is too much of an intellectual, and too wonkish in his presentation. He shows evidence of balanced judgment, but he lacks fire and passion. A charismatic leader knows how to tap into the emotions of his audience, but with Asao all the messages are aimed at your brain and never at your heart. In short, Keiichiro Asao just doesn’t know how to create excitement, and that’s a skill that a party leader needs.

Yoshimi Watanabe knows how to create excitement, but at this point he’s creating all the wrong kinds.

With unbelievable arrogance, Watanabe has begun attacking Asao in public and threatening to split the party a second time. He is demanding an immediate alliance with the Abe government. Almost everything that Watanabe says today stands in sharp contrast with positions that he had taken in the recent past. His behavior is indefensible on almost every level.

Your Party once seemed like it was something different, a party based on a common policy view rather than on competing personalities. That distinction has now been lost, probably irrevocably.

In it’s direct Japanese translation, the name of Your Party (Minna no To) in fact translates as “Everyone’s Party.” It won’t be long, we suspect, before it’s no one’s party.

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