Japan’s prime minister and a country in limbo

Author: Michael Cucek, MIT

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has this month passed the year mark in the country’s top office, besting the records of his four immediate predecessors.

However, according to media reports, the prime minister is dangling in limbo, with groups in his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) poised to move against him.

Prime Minister Kan is indeed in a difficult position. With the DPJ having lost control of the House of Councillors last year, the passage of major legislation is stalling. Most urgent is a bill raising Japan’s bond issuance limit in order to fund the current budget. Kan’s Cabinet is also only moderately popular, with support levels in the high 20s to low 30s in terms of percentage of voters — though the popularity of the Cabinet has risen steadily since the 11 March triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

The response of the prime minister and the central government to the triple disaster have been viewed as lacking passion and urgency. A 6 June Mainichi Shimbun poll found that only 3 per cent of the voters thought the government was doing a great job in the clean up, support and revival of the earthquake and tsunami affected areas. Some 35 per cent said that the government was doing a fairly good job, while 57 per cent thought the government response either poor or terrible. As for responding to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, 2 per cent of the public thought the government was doing a great job, 21 per cent a so-so job, and 71 per cent were convinced the government response has been poor or terrible.

Partly in response to these poor poll numbers, the opposition submitted a no-confidence motion against the Kan Cabinet. Under normal circumstances, with the ruling coalition holding 307 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives, the rejection of such a motion would be pro-forma. However, the opposition thought it could entice enough members of the DPJ to defect and vote for the motion.

So, what is wrong with Kan? For the opposition, his mishandling of two key events, the run-up to the 2010 House of Councillors election and the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler with Japanese Coast Guard vessels revived parties whose sloganeering and delivery of questionable pork-barrel projects to their constituents had been their sole, decaying raison d’etre. For the press, Kan is an uncooperative public figure, disdainful of the needs of reporters for some news tidbit and with no outstanding quirks that are easy to mock. For members of his own party, he has been electoral poison; his brutal honesty and contractionary economic policies having undermined the positive talk party candidates want to spew in order to get elected. Since the beginning of his tenure, the DPJ has suffered a series of electoral defeats, the most serious being the loss of control of the House of Councillors in 2010, which has left the country with a hung parliament.

Kan’s seeming contempt for the electoral fortunes of his party made him understandably vulnerable to internal revolt. Also threatening to his hold upon the party has been his program, supported by many longstanding party members, to neutralise the influence of former party leader Ichiro Ozawa, the man credited with engineering the party’s huge victory in the 2009 House of Representatives election. The effort to reverse or dilute many of the campaign promises crafted by Ozawa has turned into a generational struggle within the party, pitting the old style, fiscally conservative Democrats against the newer, younger, fiscally profligate generation recruited by Ozawa.

However, the public has tired of Ozawa’s political power mongering. In a 4 June Kyodo News poll, 89 per cent of those polled said they did not appreciate Ozawa and his supporters undermining Kan by threatening to support a no-confidence motion. Perhaps more significant than the fact that a failed no-confidence motion implies that Kan has the confidence of the house, is the implication that the influence Ozawa has over Diet members has diminished since the 2009 elections.

The public is also lukewarm toward the idea of a grand coalition between the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as proposed by Kan in order to tackle disaster reconstruction and rejected LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki. The Kyodo News poll found 45 per cent of the voters in favour of a grand coalition and 46 per cent against. The Mainichi Shimbun poll found only 36 per cent of the voters in favour of a grand DPJ-LDP coalition, 26 per cent wanting a government led by either party, and 33 per cent having no opinion at all.

Overall, the public is despairing of the current crop of politicians. The June 6 Mainichi Shimbun poll found that 85 per cent of the public think the Diet has been completely dysfunctional in responding to the reconstruction and revival needs of the affected areas of the Tohoku region. Over half the voters, 53 per cent in the Mainichi June 6 poll, do not support any party. This apathetic, anti-party atmosphere represents a significant switch from the immediate aftermath of the August 2009 House of Representatives election, when the DPJ and the LDP together had the allegiance of around 55 per cent of the voting public.

Apathy for the parties extends to apathy toward potential successors to Prime Minister Kan. When the Asahi Shimbun asked the voters who should replace Kan, the top vote getter was former Minister of Transport Seiji Maehara, with only 4 per cent of the vote. Only seven candidates indeed managed to win 2 per cent of the support of those polled. Other, more limited polls, find the greatest public support for Maehara, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, DPJ Secretary-General Katsuya Okada, and the LDP’s Policy Research Chairman Shigeru Ishiba. More recently, the name of Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been on many lips, as a DPJ heavyweight with a keen intelligence and few enemies.

When a politician is said to be dangling in limbo, he is usually either bereft of powers or facing an immanent political demise. However, dangling in limbo is turning into a comfortable place for Prime Minister Kan, as his enemies bicker amongst themselves and potential rivals maintain a low profile. At present, the prime minister looks set to survive at least through the rest of the month, thwarting the dreams of those like Ozawa and Tanigaki who wanted him out immediately. On 9 June, he said that he would like to be in the job when the government completes its mission to provide temporary housing for those displaced by the earthquake and tsunami, a project that Kan has pledged the government will finish by mid-August. Kan has talked about extending the Diet session to December, thus ensuring against a second no-confidence motion this year. Kan has also expressed his wish to be in office when the reactors at the Daiichi power station are put into cold shutdown, a process that will take until at least next January.

Most observers find that final possibility unlikely, given that Kan’s staying in power infuriates the opposition, making the passage of anything other than budget legislation impossible. However, should Kan resign and a successor be elected to take his place there is no guarantee that the opposition will be any more cooperative than it has been heretofore. Kan may be in limbo, but so is the nation, with any legislative agenda likely to be stymied by a continuing the stalemate in the Diet.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate of the MIT Center for International Studies and the author of the blog Shisaku.