Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Noda the Captain of the DPJ’s Titanic: Will Washington be another iceberg?

Longevity among Japanese governments seems to be the exception and not the rule. And Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet is no exception. Key bills before the Diet flounder due to internal divisions in and defections from his own Democratic Party of Japan, a rupture in coalition partner the People’s New Party, and stonewalling by the opposition camp, which controls the House of Councilors. He is unable to achieve any of his policy agenda and appears to have lost the confidence of the Japanese people. It is in this atmosphere he is to visit Washington April 30-May 2nd.

Pollsters predicting the DPJ will lose its majority in the House of Representatives should there be an early election later this year. The public’s disenchantment with the DPJ has reached a critical point. The most recent Yomiuri poll (April 12) found that support for the Noda Cabinet has plummeted seven points from March to 28%, its lowest rate yet since coming into office last fall.

Traditionally, governments whose popularity has slipped below the 30% line do not last long. Non-support for the cabinet jumped seven points to 59%, its highest level. Other poll results for April, such as Asahi’s (April 16), were similar.

Among supporters, 49% gave the reason as the Noda Cabinet “being better than its predecessors” – hardly a positive statement since the previous Hatoyama and Kan administrations were highly unpopular and self-destructed when support rates reached the 17-19% range. In contrast, the main reason for the public not supporting Noda was the indicting, “Nothing can be expected of its policy measures” (36%), followed by “a lack of leadership” (23%).

Noda, although eloquent in the Diet, has never developed communications lines to the electorate—a fault of his two predecessors, as well. In the Yomiuri poll, 85% of the Japanese public felt that the Prime Minister was “not providing sufficient explanations about his policies and ideas.” The Noda’s fiscally conservative DPJ government has not focused on stimulating Japan’s sluggish economy and reinvigorating the business sector. It has expended almost all of its energy on reducing the national debt that is now 200% of GNP by hiking the consumption tax. This effort does not sit well with the public, let alone members of the DPJ who have already bolted the party in protest. Noda himself has admitted that he is “staking my political life” on early passage of the consumption tax hike bill, so a failure to do so, which is becoming increasingly likely, could lead to his political downfall.

The Diet remains hopelessly gridlocked with the opposition blocking DPJ legislation in the Upper House it controls. Noda has floated the idea with his counterpart in the LDP of a “grand coalition” that would tackle key legislation of national interest, but LDP President Tanigaki has rejected the suggestion. The LDP wants to force a Diet dissolution for a snap election that it believes it can win.

Apparently ready to give up on the DPJ, a majority (52%) in the Yomiuri poll expect that Noda would dissolve the House of Representative for a snap election later this year. And in that election, only 16% of the electorate said they would vote for Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan. But despite Tanigaki’s dream of returning his party to power, there is no renewed public ardor for the Liberal Democratic Party—the former ruling party turned leading opposition party.

The public’s negative image of the party that led to its overwhelming election defeat in 2009 has not improved. Only 20% of the electorate saying they would vote for the LDP in the next election. A significant 39% of the electorate said they were undecided, but their choices in the end may not go to either major party, for the tendency of swing voters—as seen in the last election for the Upper House in 2010—is to favor new small parties with attractive leaders and programs, of which there are plenty.

The dilemma both major parties face in an upcoming election can be seen in recent Jiji Press polls. Jiji conducts its polls by the more accurate face-to-face interviews, not random digital dialing (RDD) by phone, like other news companies. Jiji’s effective response rate is about 10% on average higher than RDD polls. In the polls for January through March 2012, the DPJ’s support rate dropped from 11.6% to 10.1% and then to 9.2%. It leveled off at 9.5% in April. But the LDP’s support rate also dropped from 13.3% to 12.3% and then to11.7% in March -- the lowest ever for that party. It picked up 1.7 points in April but is still at only 13.4%. In recent polls, those Japanese who said they support no party reached an amazing 70%; the highest level on record.

The time seems to be ripe for a “third force” to emerge and woo voters with attractive leaders and programs. The media have focused much attention recently on Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s new party (Osaka Ishin no Kai). He intends to run a significant number of candidates in the next national election and could pick up many seats.

A well-known pollster, in a district by district analysis for the April 12 issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun, has predicted that if a snap election for the Lower House is held this summer, the DPJ would lose its majority, ending up with approximately 144 seats. The chamber has 480 seats and 241 are needed for a majority. The LDP, too, would win approximately 209 seats, according to the simulation, far under a majority. However, two popular small, conservative parties, the Ishin no Kai and Your Party, with strong agendas would together garner 76 seats.

In the end, this all belabors the point as to why Prime Minister Noda will soon visit Washington. He has no legislative victories to bring and even less on resolving the Futenma dilemma. The number one issue for the Obama Administration, Japan joining the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, is unlikely. The one significant achievement of the Noda Government, the official apology to the American POWs of Japan, is heralded by neither the government.

Indeed, Noda faces such rightwing opposition that he took to the floor of the Diet last month and noted that the wartime Comfort Women were not “coerced” victims of sex trafficking. This very same statement by one of his predecessors, Shinzo Abe, created an international outcry against Japan undermining his trip to Washington. It now appears that many of the same dynamics of unpopularity and conservative myopia are again at play with Noda’s Washington visit.

Dr. William L. Brooks
Senior Fellow, Asia Policy Point
April 16, 2012

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