Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Can Kan Survive?

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By tomorrow we will know if the Kan government has survived. On Thursday, June 2 the opposition LDP and New Komeito coalition promises to bring a no-confidence motion to a vote. How many rebels within Kan’s own party, the DPJ, will join is the question. Note, it is not “whether” but “how many.” No matter the outcome, Prime Minister Kan’s leadership is shaken and the DPJ is shredded.

The G8 Summit and the bilateral with President Obama was important for Prime Minister Naoto Kan. They bolstered Japan’s international presence as well as the beleaguered leader’s image. At home, Japan’s triple disasters have created profound physical and psychological damage. Japanese remain panicked about the continued radiation from Fukushima.

Kan is under heavy criticism for his allegedly bungling responses, particularly to the nuclear accident. Kan and his cabinet have been pummeled daily in the Diet and the press. The U.S.-Japan summit meeting thus turned into an anchor of calm for Japan in a sea of political chaos at home.

Japan needed the personal assurances of its good friend and ally, the U.S., that the bilateral relationship remains high on the President’s agenda, including assistance to help its long-term recovery. That being said, the bilateral meeting did not address pending problems, nor was it supposed to. It simply gave Kan more time to work on domestic issues such as the future course of the Futenma relocation issue and Japan’s preparations for possibly joining TPP – hopefully by the Prime Minister’s official U.S. visit, now delayed to September.

That is, if Kan can survive politically beyond tomorrow.

Kan’s visible presence among the G8 leaders, his speeches that showed Japan’s resolve, and promises on the energy front were impressive. It was also good for the Japanese people to see their leader no longer in a crisis-management mode, but actively engaged in fulfilling the international responsibilities of his position. Press reaction initially to his summit diplomacy was positive. The media have been far less friendly, though, on the highly volatile issue of managing the nuclear crisis set off by the Fukushima disaster.

Kan may have bought some time with the U.S., but the political opposition in the Diet has not given him any slack. He returned from France not only with heavy Summit homework to address, but also a Diet in turmoil, key bills in limbo, and a reinvigorated opposition camp ready to submit a no-confidence motion against him. The irony of the U.S. President praising Kan’s leadership, when it is under severe attack at home, was not lost on the Japanese media.

It is likely that some of the anti-Kan forces in the DPJ, mostly loyal followers of former Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, will bolt from the party to support the motion. DPJ leaders have warned that they would throw any rebels out of the party. Nevertheless, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has also indicated that he will support the no-confidence motion. Further, on Wednesday evening three Vice Ministers and two Parliamentary Secretaries turned in their resignations to the government. The five men, all close to Ozawa, said that they had to resign in order to vote for the no confidence motion.*

As of today (June 1, U.S. time), it still seems unlikely that there will be enough rebels (85 or so needed) to allow the motion to pass. Conventional wisdom, however, has the number at around 50. Kan told the Diet he was not about to resign with his job of reconstructing Japan undone, and the DPJ has warned that the Prime Minister might dissolve the Diet as punishment to the rebels and the LDP.

But an election could be political suicide for the DPJ. At least four political pundits have predicted that if there were a snap election, the DPJ would lose badly, with the LDP winning big enough to put it back into power with the Komeito. Recently, however, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled the previous Diet elections unconstitutional. They can prohibit another election until the Diet fixes the apportionment inequalities in the voting system. It is anybody's guess how this political drama will play out, but the mood of the public is very negative that at a time of national calamity the politicians are playing a game of chicken.

Assuming he survives this ordeal, Kan must then start to work on delivering on his G8 Summit homework. His still-to-fleshed out energy plan, announced at the OECD, is bold and ambitious, but the target, for example, of doubling reliance on renewable energy by 2020 is seen as admirable as it is unattainable. And whether the Japanese economy – and society – can take another 10 years of austere restrictions on energy – another target – remains to be seen. There is fear in industry that power restrictions and rising costs could drive even more production offshore.

On the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Kan would like Japan to join, but the domestic obstacles to including agriculture among Japan’s concessions remain even more formidable now after the earthquake that destroyed precious farmland in the north. The delay in TPP preparations also has given anti-TPP forces the advantage in their campaign to convince the public that joining would “destroy” Japanese agriculture. The new arrival sections of bookstores are already filling with such propaganda.

It is the herculean task of finally resolving the Futenma base relocation issue that may ultimately make or break Mr. Kan. Committed firmly to implementing the current relocation plan, the central government must now do the kind of heavy lifting in Okinawa that it previously was loathe to do – namely, convince the governor and local officials to allow the base to agree to let the base be moved to another part of Okinawa and not out of the prefecture.

Defense Minister Kitazawa’s meeting last week with Okinawa’s Governor Nakaima went predictably nowhere. Whether the exhausted Kan Cabinet, assuming is survives the June crisis, has the will and the energy to devote to convincing Okinawa to swallow a very bitter pill that is likely to include offers of significant economic measures to affected areas to win them over remains unclear. And frankly, neither the DPJ rebels nor the too long ruling and opposition LDP have proposed better solutions.

Spiteful politics is no way to run a country.

William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

Mindy Kotler
APP Director

*The five, all Lower House lawmakers, are Shozo Azuma, senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office, Wakio Mitsui, senior vice minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, Katsumasa Suzuki, senior vice minister of internal affairs and communications, Akira Uchiyama, parliamentary secretary of internal affairs and communications, and Takeshi Hidaka, parliament secretary of environment.

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