Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Playing safe is dangerous game for Hatoyama

Prime Minister Hatoyama has asked Japan's new public enemy No. 1 to remain by his side at the heart of Japanese politics.

Despite the national clamor for him to quit his post as secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa formally announced on Monday that he will hang in as the chief strategist for the Upper House election this fall.

The public is upset, with up to 74% wanting Ozawa to resign to take responsibility for the arrest of aides for illegal money transactions, according to polls. Over 80% remain unconvinced with his explanations in the surveys. All major dailies, too, weighed in over the weekend with the blunt suggestion to Ozawa of either explaining himself fully to the Diet or stepping down.

Even more dangerous for the powerful politician, cries for Ozawa’s resignation are starting to rise in his own party, most recently from DPJ policy chief Yukio Edano in a much televised public speech over the weekend. Edano belongs to a wing in the party that includes Seiji Maehara, a former DPJ president now in the Hatoyama cabinet. Ozawa’s arch enemies in the party are now likely to become more vocal in their criticism, fearing the worst in the upcoming election.

Creating further controversy, Ozawa’s former private secretary turned DPJ lawmaker Tomohiro Ishikawa, indicted for not reporting a $4 million political donation, also announced from Hokkaido, where he is sequestered after posting bail, that he would “hang in there” and not resign his Diet seat. But A group of Diet members from the opposition camp are preparing a resolution demanding that he quit.

Hatoyama may not realize how serious the situation has become. The daily scene of gridlock in the Diet as deliberations on the budget stall over the Ozawa scandal has eroded the public’s confidence in the DPJ administration. The latest round of opinion polls released over the weekend show further erosion of the Hatoyama Cabinet’s once sky-high popularity, with disapproval now outweighing support in most surveys.

The Yomiuri poll was typical with 47% against (up 5 points from January) versus 44% for. The public is questioning the cabinet’s ability to manage policy imperatives. According to the Yomiuri poll, 68% of the public were concerned about the future of the US-Japan relationship under the Hatoyama administration.

The subject of last Sunday’s talk show on NHK, Japan’s equivalent of BBC, was how to recover the public’s trust in politics. With representatives of every political party represented, the discussion turned into a Ozawa bashing session. Hatoyama, who has a money scandal of his own, didn't escape the blows. The lone DPJ member, an uncomfortable-looking Banri Kaieda, was forced to defend the indefensible as best he could.

A party which came into power last August 30 vowing to usher in change is now locked into a scenario reminiscent of the party it replaced. The DPJ was supposed to root out political corruption of the kind associated with the kingpins of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Prosecutors last week decided not to indict Ozawa, citing “lack of sufficient evidence.” The verdict was widely interpreted as not exonerating him from any culpability, and the public, as seen in the polls, agrees.

The hemorrhaging of his party’s public-support lifeline will continue. An NHK poll released Monday showed the support rate of the DPJ also is dropping sharply, accompanied by a spike in those who say they support no party. It was unaffiliated voters turning out in droves who propelled the DPJ into power last August. Their fickleness could do significant damage to the party in July’s Upper House race.

Young people in particular seem to disappointed with the DPJ. An NPO poll of college students of voting age (summarized in the national daily Mainichi on Saturday) found only 21% support for the Hatoyama cabinet, and another 45% sitting on the fence.

So far, the prime minister has continued to let matters run their course, unwilling to make tough decisions that might shore up his sagging public support and silence critics in the party who may want him, too, to step down. If he continues to play it safe, deferring to Ozawa’s judgment, he must steel himself to face the consequences in the election come July.
Dr William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

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