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Jun 15, 2011

Disaster, debt and despair: but Japan’s political sideshow rolls on

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has stated he may soon resign from office, keeping Japan in its pattern of an annual transition of premiership. It seems he has no choice. In the face of disaster the political sideshow rolls on, writes Dr Craig Mark from Tokyo.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has stated he may soon resign from office, keeping Japan in its pattern of an annual transition of premiership. It seems he has no choice.

Kan had already been under pressure to step down as Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader following the sluggish post-GFC economy, losses in the 2010 upper house elections and an electoral funding scandal. Thrust into handling the March 11 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, Kan was temporarily spared, but has been weakened further by an attempted no-confidence motion in the Diet, held on June 2.

Sponsored by the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and the smaller New Komeito and Your Party (YP), the motion was defeated 293-152, but not before a potential rebellion within the DPJ was prevented. DPJ members aligned to former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, and the scandal-tainted, yet still highly influential factional powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, who effectively controls 71 MPs, had threatened to cross the floor of the Diet and support the opposition motion.

Kan cut a last-minute deal with Hatoyama, pledging to step down once disaster reconstruction plans were set in place, but at least not before mid-August. This would include resolving safety issues at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, seeing those displaced from the disaster placed in adequate accommodation and clearing the worst of the debris left by the tsunami. In return, Hatoyama withdrew his faction’s support for the motion, after which Ozawa followed.

It was a measure of revenge for Hatoyama, who had been forced to step down in 2010 due to his own electoral funding scandal. Ozawa also holds much personal animosity towards Kan, and two of Ozawa’s MP’s who refused to back down were expelled, making good the threats by senior DPJ leaders to throw out dissident MPs. A highly damaging split, which could have threatened the DPJ’s majority, and triggered a lower house election, was narrowly averted.

Kan’s position had already suffered a major setback following local elections held in April, where the DPJ suffered major losses in local government wards and mayoral races, widely perceived as a critique of the Kan government’s response to the March 11 crisis. DPJ candidates were frequently out-polled by the LDP, smaller parties and independents, even by the Communist Party. In an effort to mollify this public dissatisfaction, with his approval ratings reaching as low as 20%, Kan offered to forgo his salary from June, and has taken to appearing in the Diet without wearing a tie, promoting the “Super Cool Biz” campaign to dress more casually at work in summer.

But will he leave office at a time of his choosing? Continuing parliamentary deadlock may soon force the issue for Kan. The current Diet is scheduled to go into recess from June 22, but Kan wants to extend it well into the remainder of the year, partly to continue the oversight of disaster reconstruction. He also wants to pass supplementary funding bills, to extend the bond issues needed to cover the fiscal 2011 budget deficit, currently blocked in the upper house by the opposition parties. The price of a deal to allow the funding bills to pass could be Kan’s resignation by July, after which a new extraordinary session of the Diet would be convened to confirm the new prime minister.

One possible successor is Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda. He is seen as fairly neutral and unthreatening within the DPJ factions, is so far untouched by scandal, is familiar to the bureaucracy, and may be able to work more effectively with the opposition in the Diet. Noda modestly denies any interest in a challenge, extolling his DPJ colleagues to unify.

Other potential candidates emerging include Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano, former environment ninister Sakihito Ozawa and former chairman of the DPJ’s Diet Affairs Committee, Shinji Tarutoko. Noda is reported to have backing from powerful DPJ figures, principally DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada, deputy chief Yoshito Sengoku, and high-profile Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who has developed the strongest public image in the DPJ since the March 11 disaster.  At the moment though, it appears a fairly open race, given the byzantine backroom dealings underway among the DPJ’s factional powerbrokers.

The prospect of a joint coalition government with the LDP (from where many DPJ members originally defected) has also been floated by Okada. Such a coalition could provide a sense of national unity at a time of crisis, and would ensure the passage of the reconstruction and budget bills. It would be an admission of the overall weakness of the DPJ, which does not face a general election until 2013, and would isolate the smaller opposition parties: a DJP-LDP alliance would deliver 421 out of 480 seats in the lower house, and 189 out of 242 in the upper house.

But many LDP members remain opposed, hoping instead to return to power in their own right, hence the attempt at splitting the DJP via the no-confidence vote. The stability of such an unwieldy coalition would also always be in doubt.

Whoever emerges as prime minister, it will be yet another leadership transition where the Japanese public have no say. It will do little to dispel widespread public cynicism and dissatisfaction with politics, at a time when many just wish for greater co-operation among politicians in tackling the economic and social problems confronting Japan in the wake of its recent disasters.

*Dr Craig Mark is with the Department of Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University

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