Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hatoyama will weather the storm

Is Yukio Hatoyama and his administration "embattled" and drowning in a deluge of bad press?

Sorry to rain on the naysayers' parade, but the answer is "no," and nor do the fundamentals of Japanese politics appear completely against him. Unless the Democratic Party of Japan splits or the Tokyo prosecutors indict Mr. Hatoyama, he and his party will weather the storm. At first glance, this analysis seems overly sunny. The dramatic losses of the Nagasaki gubernatorial and the Machida City mayoral elections in Tokyo to LDP candidates do poke holes in the DPJ umbrella. With no more Lower or Upper House by-elections on the horizon, the Nagasaki gubernatorial election was presented as a bellwether prelude to the Upper House election in July.

But let's catch our breath here. There were seven candidates splitting the Nagasaki vote and five in Machida. The campaigns happened in the midst of the worst of the money politics accusations and indictments. The economy remains shaky and unemployment is only just beginning to drop.

In an Asahi Shimbun poll published Feb. 22, the rate of public support for Hatoyama’s cabinet fell below 40% for the first time since its launch. In this telephone-based nationwide public opinion survey conducted Feb. 20-21, the cabinet's support rate was 37%, down from the 41% rating in the previous spot poll conducted Feb. 5-6. Yet, this same survey showed that the LDP’s support rate had plateaued at 18% and the DPJ, maintained 32%. A similar Kyodo news poll found that Japanese still favor the DPJ over the LDP by 34% to 23%.

Nevertheless, the election defeat has given the DPJ and its Party Secretary Ichiro Ozawa pause. Ozawa’s soiled boots are visibly beginning to harm his party. The relentless negative press has worn on both Ozawa and the DPJ.

But in the DPJ’s favor is the continued disarray of the LDP. With six months left to the Upper House elections, the LDP shows neither the imagination nor leadership to move beyond its minority status. The result is that a number of LDP politicians – both Lower House members defeated last summer and incumbent Upper House members seeking re-election later this year – have resigned from the party and started plotting their comebacks under the DPJ coalition.

In the Upper House, on February 17th, these defections allowed the DPJ to gain a majority, thus dominating both houses of the Diet. In the more powerful Lower House, the DPJ’s 308 seats are considered a good indicator of the Party’s staying power. The result is both corporations and professional associations are moving toward the DPJ. The Japan Dental Federation recently dropped the LDP after decades of support to announce that they will back the DPJ in the Upper House elections in July. The new head of Keidanren, Hiromasa Yonekura, has pledged to explore ways to strengthen cooperation with the government by taking a pro-consumer stance.

DPJ party leaders believe the party can recover from its election defeats and regain the people’s trust. There is still a lot of time before the Upper House election and the 2010 budget will soon pass, putting DPJ policies into practice. The government will find a solution to Futenma and the Toyota mess is pushing politics off the front page. The DPJ rank and file are standing firm in support of Ozawa.

The Economist’s Banyan sees Hatoyama out as prime minister before the end of spring. He thinks a grand coalition is around the corner. But, for that to happen, a flood of lawmakers would need to exit the ruling party and the economy implode. That simply does not seem to be happening.

Although Ozawa's tenure is increasingly tenuous, one lesson learned from the brief respite from LDP rule in the 1990s was that you never step down, ever. Ideological differences on security policy and other issues do exist within the DPJ. Yet, for now all the major DPJ groups have effective representation in the cabinet, and no one really has anything to gain by dropping out and joining forces with a flailing and unpopular opposition.

Everyone is staying put.

Michael Penn,
APP Nonresident Fellow,
Shingetsu Institute

Mindy Kotler,
APP Director

Picture from here.

1 comment:

  1. There is additional evidence for your conclusion: Keidanren is shifting to a stance of political neutrality (1), Komeito is edging away from the LDP and towards the DPJ (2), and even Sankei admits that the "politics and money" scandals have given "no tailwind" to the LDP (3). The Japanese public may disappointed with the DPJ's performance over the past few months, but it will be a long time before they forgive the LDP for the last two decades.





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