Looking at Japanese politics today, it is tempting to agree with the astute Linda Seig of Reuters that Prime Minister Naoto Kan seems “cornered by opponents, with no escape in sight.”
But that’s not how the very-determined Kan sees things. Ditto for DPJ strongman Yoshito Sengoku, who, while conceding a small chance that Kan might have to step aside to break the current political logjam, insists that DPJ control of the government will remain solid for at least the next two years.
In short, Japan is very unlikely to face national elections any time soon. To the contrary, once the current budget impasse is resolved, a DPJ-led government is likely to continue pursuit of the aggressive policy agenda for open trade and reform of the country’s fiscal condition that Kan has championed in recent months.
That scenario, while not exactly the political nirvana of a smoothly-functioning two party system, is a far cry from the image of Japan as a nation hopelessly-deadlocked politically, stagnant economically, and overall on the express train to nowhere so often conveyed in the Japanese press, and echoed in foreign media.
Several key factors are likely to shape the unfolding political landscape.
KAN: THE STUBBORN FACTOR. Kan’s leadership can seem inconsistent at times, but he responds to pressure with an unusually fierce determination. Those who know him best say that his deep reservoir of fight should never be overlooked; he started off in politics completely on his own, suffered through 3 losses before winning his seat in the Diet over 25 years ago, and is not one to walk away unless he has absolutely no other choice.
He is also deeply committed to the DPJ, which he played a hand in forming as part of a mission to break the grip of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on post-war Japanese life (not simply politics). That commitment dictates Kan will not call an election to break the current political deadlock, since the DPJ would almost certainly suffer huge losses.
Instead, Kan will explore all reasonable means to entice some opposition party votes for the budget and related bills. Sengoku is backing Kan in that effort, urging him to fight on as long as possible, with mid-April the likely deadline. At that point, the ever-realist Sengoku says, Kan may have to step aside. But that is far from assured. Party insiders indicate Kan still has at least a 50-50 chance of holding his office. Either way, Sengoku insists, there is nothing on the horizon that should force the DPJ to hold an election before the current Lower House term expires in 2013.
NO DESIRE FOR ELECTIONS: Recent polls show an uptick in voter support for new elections to break the political logjam. But analysts say that this reflects pure frustration, and that a large majority still strongly favors political stability and a government that can get things done, rather than yet-another change of prime ministers. Even a shift from Kan to a new DPJ leader is not looked upon very positively by voters, though that would seem to be better than new elections.
Beyond the voters, the main political parties are not in favor, either. The LDP is short on money (especially with corporate contributions lagging), and is having trouble recruiting attractive candidates to stand behind its damaged brand-name. The New Komeito gives priority to April local elections, and does not want national elections scheduled close-by. And the DPJ would almost certainly be hurt, as many of its current freshman Diet members would not be reelected.
Kan is well-aware of the pervasive anxiety about elections all across the political spectrum, and is able to use this to his advantage. For how long is not clear.
PUBLIC PRESSURE TO PASS THE BUDGET: The ongoing budget stalemate, while harmful to Kan and the DPJ, also hurts the opposition LDP and New Komeito. A failure to pass the budget would deeply anger the public, threatening the opposition parties with a public backlash accusing them of being obstructionist. Kan is betting/hoping that fears of a backlash will ultimately force at least some portion of the opposition to vote to pass the required budget legislation. The opposition parties, while likely to pull back before forcing an election, are hoping to at least win the resignation of Kan as a political concession in exchange for agreeing to budget passage.
NO POST-KAN DPJ CONSENSUS: The budget has to pass, and no one wants an election to force passage. So the question is whether the budget can pass with Kan at the helm? An additional factor working in Kan’s favor is the lack of a clear consensus within the DPJ as to who would take his place. Sengoku has no desire to take the job, and he is much more valuable as the chief political figure binding the DPJ together. The DPJ has a rapidly-developing ‘next generation’ of leaders, mentored by Sengoku, who one day will legitimately vie to be premier. At this point, however, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada is most-talked about within the party as a successor to Kan, as his clean image and perceived policy expertise could reaffirm the party consensus against a risky Lower House election and at-least temporarily quell internal rivalries. Shinji Tarutoko, who ran against Kan last year, would likely stand for election as DPJ president, but would have trouble beating the more unifying Okada. (Sengoku is partial to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, and secondly Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, but believes both need more political seasoning.)
So while Kan still stands a good chance of remaining in office, a shift to a new DPJ leadership would probably proceed more smoothly than many analysts now believe.
THE DECLINING OZAWA FACTOR: Another factor working in Kan’s favor is the declining ability of rival Ichiro Ozawa to influence party affairs. Ozawa, while still a formidable figure, is under indictment for alleged financial irregularities, and his trial is likely to keep him under a cloud for 2-3 years (even though many believe he will be acquitted). On paper, Ozawa has a large number of followers within the DPJ’s Diet delegation. In reality, few want to risk their respective political futures by aligning with a political figure so unpopular with the public and with little prospect of forging a viable political organization. Typical of Ozawa’s declining influence is the emerging role of Tarutoko, a long-time Ozawa ally who has managed to reposition himself within the DPJ somewhere between Ozawa and the Sengoku-Kan forces. Tarutoko wants to eventually be DPJ president, not a political nomad, so will not go along with any Ozawa effort to split the party.
This week 16 DPJ Lower House members aligned with Ozawa announced plans to separate from the DPJ parliamentary bloc, in what many see as a “testing of the waters” by Ozawa to gauge his inner-party strength. Few were impressed.
Another prominent DPJ Lower House member nominally aligned with Ozawa, former Internal Affairs minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi, says he supports passage of the pending budget bills so as to help keep the DPJ in power. He insists he will oppose any efforts by Ozawa-allied Diet members to block the legislation, though he intends to challenge Kan or any similar-minded DPJ leader for the party presidency next summer.
DPJ STABILITY, CONTINUITY: Overall, there is more clarity in Japan’s political picture than immediately meets the eye. While the foreign media has taken little notice, and the Japanese media has granted little credit, Naoto Kan has taken on political challenges inside Japan at least as big, if not bigger, than anything the much-heralded Junichiro Koizumi ever did, including, currently, Japan’s powerful farm lobby. And, despite some blocs of opposition, there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum roughly in favor of the agenda Kan has put forward: open trade via participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership; reform of the troubled agricultural sector; and reform of the troubled social security system. Within the DPJ, some, like Haraguchi oppose increasing the consumption tax, even while supporting the TPP initiative. Others oppose agriculture reform. But Kan, or any of his probable immediate successors, will likely prove able to keep the party basically united around the agenda. And with the DPJ under no compulsion to hold an election, opposition parties will increasingly be under pressure to go to the negotiating table to forge workable policies, rather than simply obstruct anything the DPJ puts forward.