Monday, May 30, 2011

Kan Isolated as Fractures Grow in DPJ

Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s May 20 decision not to present the second supplementary budget bill to the Diet for earthquake disaster relief and reconstruction may have been a fatal mistake. He wants to delay the bill to an extraordinary Diet session in August. This tactic, however, has upset even members of his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) not to mention the LDP-led opposition camp. A no-confidence motion against the Kan Cabinet is becoming increasingly likely, though it would probably take place after the Prime Minister returns from this month's G8 summit in France.

Calls for Kan to resign to take responsibility for allegedly poor handling of the aftermath of the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear plant disasters have grown in the DPJ. According to press reports, Kan allegedly delayed for an hour the emergency cooling of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima with sea water, possibly contributing to a meltdown.

The latest heavyweight to join the chorus of Kan bashers is House of Councillors President Takeo Nishioka, who demanded the immediate resignation of Kan in an article he wrote for the Yomiuri Shimbun May 19. He repeated his demand at a press conference the same day. Nishioka cited Kan's responses to the earthquake and crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Kan, undisturbed, simply said, "There is no reason at all for me to resign at this time."

But Nishioka's pressure on Kan to step down has grave implications, as the Upper House president has considerable authority over the fate of bills in the divided Diet. Moreover, Nishioka comes from the DPJ, having the left the party as is customary because he must remain neutral in his post. In addition, the DPJ is starting to see junior lawmakers quit the party.

Kan also continues to take a beating in the polls. Jiji Press’ latest opinion survey, released on May 20, found nearly 70% of the public want the Prime Minister to quit immediately or after dealing disaster response measures. Only 24.5% said they want Kan to stay in power. On the government’s response to the earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis, 71.9% faulted Kan for a lack of leadership, the poll showed. The Kan Cabinet’s support rate stood at 21.9%, up 1.4 points from the previous month. Though rising for three straight months, the approval rating remains deep in the danger zone for an incumbent prime minister. The disapproval rating was 59.5%, down 2.1 points.

Meanwhile, there are signs of a possible future political realignment growing out of fractures in party unity in both the DPJ and LDP. On May 17, two bipartisan Diet member leagues were formed linking anti-Kan forces in the DPJ and forces in the LDP opposed to the presidency of Sadakazu Nakatani. Lawmakers joining the league are mostly junior to mid-level (five terms elected or below). At the first meeting, 87 DPJ and 22 LDP lawmakers or a total of 109 showed up. The league was formed ostensibly to counter the stalemate in the Diet over critical earthquake-recovery legislation, but its true aim seems to be ultimately unseat the president in their respective party. From such a grouping could come a future grand coalition of like-minded forces in both parties preconditioned on Kan’s resignation. In the latest Yomiuri poll, 56% of the respondents supported a grand coalition in order to speed up the recovery of Japan, so the concept is already acceptable to the Japanese electorate.

The same day, a second league was formed by 12 mid-level DPJ members who are loyal to former party secretary general Ichiro Ozawa. Again, the formal reason for the gathering was to promote the reconstruction of earthquake-stricken Japan, but the true aim ultimately is to topple Kan in favor of a party president who is more to Ozawa’s liking.

In the meantime, if the 87 anti-Kan DPJ members were to join a no-confidence motion against Kan fielded by the LDP, it could pass the Lower House. The New Komeito, the LDP’s former coalition partner, has already signaled its support for a possible no-confidence motion. In such a case, Kan would have no choice but to resign. Interestingly, he does not now have the option of dissolving the Lower House for a snap election, a card past prime ministers have used effectively to survive political challenges.

The Supreme Court in March ruled that the 2009 Lower House election was in principle unconstitutional because of the disparity of voting weight favoring rural areas over urban areas. It did not disallow the election results, but ordered a correction of the imbalance. Until a law is passed reducing the rural-urban voting gap, the Prime Minister cannot use that traditional card.

As is common with the intrigues of Japanese politics, the outlook for unseating Kan is unclear. There is already serious talk in both the DPJ and LDP about a small second supplemental budget that could be passed with bipartisan support before the Diet ends June 22. This might defuse the revolt against Kan – and Tanigaki—and allow Kan to introduce a much larger extra budget in late summer.

Still, political instability is likely to continue to grow. When the critical mass will be reached is not easily predictable. As for the impact on U.S.-Japan relations, one might say what is new? But issues that have been repeatedly delayed regarding the Alliance – such as the Futenma base relocation conundrum – will continue to be.

William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

This analysis appeared in the May 23rd edition of Asia Policy Point's Asia Policy Calendar sent to APP's members every Monday

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