Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Japan polls: The rot has stopped

The Hatoyama Cabinet's opinion poll numbers this month have stabilized. In one poll, Kyodo’s, the negative trend has even reversed. The fortunes have apparently reversed in the heretofore declining support rates for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the growing support for its opposition rival, the Liberal Democratic Party.

What has not changed, however, is the public’s concern about the prime minister himself, particularly his failure to pay taxes on political donations, and his policy stances, most notably, the postponement of a decision on whether to honor the LDP agreement with the US to relocate a US Marine base to another spot in Okinawa.

Support slide continues in NHK poll
NHK’s latest opinion poll, released Jan. 12, finds the public’s support for the cabinet of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama dropped four points to 52%, while the non-support rate rose two points to 36. Since November, support has dropped by 13%; non-support has risen by 15%. Party support basically has stayed the same since December, with the DPJ now at 34.9% (down 0.7%), and the LDP at 18.3% (up 1.2%).

But when the support rate is disaggregated to focus on unaffiliated voters, the force that propelled the DPJ into power in the Lower House election last Aug. 30, the NHK poll shows a sudden reversal of the Prime Minister’s popularity with the non-support rate at 46% and the support rate at 38%.

Asked about why they did not support the Hatoyama Cabinet, 46% of that segment of the public cited the lack of capability of implementing policy, and another 26% said they did not have any expectations about its policies. On the question of what they hoped to see tackled by the cabinet, 23% of the public listed social security, such as pensions and health care, 23% wanted elimination of waste of tax money, and 21% said jobs and the economy.

The poll also indicated that the public is increasingly dissatisfied with the results of the Hatoyama economic team. Queried about the recent appointment of Naoto Kan, national strategy minister, to fill the post of finance minister vacated by the now hospitalized Hirohisa Fujii, 65% of the public were unhappy with handing Kan another portfolio, calling it “inappropriate.” A majority of the public, 56%, were also negative about the size of next fiscal year’s budget, a record 92 trillion yen. Only 35% of the public supported such a level of spending.

On Prime Minister Hatoyama’s explanation that he did not know anything about the secret transactions involving his mother’s political contributions to him that got his former private secretary in trouble with the law, 78% remain unconvinced. But only 17% would have Hatoyama resign over it, and 35% would have him stay. The lion's share - 43% - were undecided.

In a second part of the poll released on Jan. 13, NHK’s sampling of opinion found the nation split down the middle on the broad question of whether they felt “politics has changed.” Fifty percent of the public said they felt it had changed, while 47% said it had not.

Yomiuri poll sees support rising slightly
The Yomiuri’s Jan. 11 poll found support for the cabinet had inched up in January by a point to a healthy 56%. The non-support rate also was up a notch to 34%. Oddly, the support rate for the DPJ dropped from 43% in Dec. to 39%, while the support rate for the LDP dipped to a record low of 16%, down two points from last month. If the Upper House election were held today, 35% said they would vote for the DPJ and 20% for the LDP. Most of the rest of the population, unaffiliated voters, are not sure.

On the appointment of Kan to replace Fujii as finance minister, 47% indicated approval, while 33% were opposed. This is in stark contrast to the NHK poll, which had a solid majority against the appointment. In many cases, however, the questionnaire itself could lead respondents to choose a certain answer. One could conjecture that this may have influenced one or both of the sets of divergent answers.

Despite the cabinet’s support remaining stable this month, Prime Minister Hatoyama remains unpopular. The Yomiuri poll found only 18% of the public crediting him for his leadership, and 73 saying that he had none. Asked who they thought was the most influential politician in the DPJ, 68% chose Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa. Only 10% chose Hatoyama.

Kyodo poll reverses the trend
Kyodo’s January poll, released on the 11th, shows a slight recovery in the Hatoyama Cabinet’s popularity, in contrast to other polls indicating continuing decline (for another take on this poll see the blog Shisaku. The cabinet support rate rose 3.6 points from Dec. to 50.8% in the latest survey. The non-support rate was 33.2, down 4.9 points. The survey also showed a rise in the DPJ’s support rate, up 2.6 points to 38.7%. The LDP’s support rate in contrast plummeted 6.4 points to a low of 17.3% -- about where the DPJ used to be during its worst years in the opposition camp.

Oddly, despite its apparent good feelings toward the cabinet and the ruling DPJ, the public had only harsh views toward the way Ozawa has been responding to his cash scandal, in which his former secretary has taken the blame for illegal land transactions and shady political contributions. Asked about his explanation denying any connection, an overwhelming 85.4% of the public thought that Ozawa’s explanation was “insufficient.” On the question of whether he should resign, the public was split, with 35.1% answering that he should resign his party post, 25.3% saying that he should even resign his Diet seat, and 34.6% indicating that a full explanation and resolve to improve the situation would suffice.

The unanswerable Futenma question?
Each of the polls had a question about the pending issue of the relocation of the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. In the NHK poll, the public took a stern view, with 56% unhappy with Hatoyama’s decision to postpone a decision on the relocation until May, with 37% in favor. The Yomiuri poll found the public split three ways, with 47% wanting the current plan to be implemented, 30% seeking relocation outside of Japan, and only 13% (14% last month) willing to see the facility relocated elsewhere in Japan.

Hatoyama may have improved his cabinet’s support rate in some of the polls this month, but the prime minister is not out of the woods by any means, remaining vulnerable over the political funds scandals. If the support rate in the polls were to sink below 40%, it could have an impact on the next election in July for the Upper House. Still, the polls also show that people are willing to give him and his cabinet more time, but that they remain adamant about keeping the Futenma base out of their own backyard. It is most likely that Hatoyama will still be in place come the Upper House elections in July, but his cabinet's popularity could make or break the DPJ in the election.

From this vantage point, Ozawa's goal to land 60 seats and control of both houses of the Diet seems distant to say the least.

William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

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