Once again, Naoto Kan’s political opponents, and a broad spectrum of political analysts in Japan, have underestimated the Japanese prime minister’s determination to stay in power.
With a deft, last minute political maneuver – an announced willingness to step aside at some unspecified date – Kan managed to divide opponents within his own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and easily beat back on Thursday a no-confidence motion submitted by a deeply-frustrated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The big losers: The LDP, which submitted the motion despite the likelihood of defeat, and DPJ leader-turned-dissident Ichiro Ozawa, who once again finds himself in Japan’s political wilderness, but this time while under indictment for alleged misuse of political funds, and weighed down by an extraordinarily low level of popularity among voters.
Kan is by no means strong, of course, and even the medium-term outlook for his DPJ is very uncertain.
Speculation will grow as to who will replace Kan, what will become of the struggling LDP, who will follow Ozawa in the likely creation of a new political party, and whether some kind of coalition government will form to stabilize the government.
It will take time for some clarity to emerge.
But with this latest episode of political soap opera out of the way, Kan will likely be able in the short-term to shame his opponents into at least pretending to focus on the pressing national needs of post-earthquake reconstruction and longer-term economic reforms.
Working in his favor is the widespread revulsion among voters that narrow political maneuvering took precedence over actual governing in the midst of a serious national crisis. Kan is not a particularly sympathetic figure; his approval rating is below 30 percent. But close to 50 percent of voters in recent polls said he should be allowed to remain in office until reconstruction efforts have had time to set in.
Ozawa and the LDP just ignored those voter sentiments, and will likely suffer as a result.
Actually, even before the March 11 earthquake, Kan was using the public’s desire for political stability as his main political card to justify remaining in office. Opponents and analysts alike predicted a March or April “crisis” for Kan, but he seemed to revel in ignoring them.
Kan now seems likely to push for an extension of the current Diet session, now scheduled to end June 22, so as to pass a second supplementary budget for reconstruction. After that, a special Diet session seems likely for late August or early September, for adoption of legislation to allow issuance of bonds to finance a big portion of the national budget that started April 1.
It’s anyone’s guess how long Kan will stay in office. He did not specify any date to leave. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who withdrew his support for the no-confidence motion after Kan offered to step aside, indicated his view that Kan’s departure should come early this summer. But Kan has consistently shown an unusual determination to resist pressure he regards as unreasonable or overly-political, and it is by no means certain that with the no-confidence vote out of the way, Hatoyama or other remaining dissidents will have the power to oust Kan as early as they may now desire. That could cause further party turmoil, though the desire for another bruising political battle any time soon is very limited, which will work to Kan’s benefit.
Kan will want to be able to say that the reconstruction efforts are genuinely on solid footing. Sometime next Autumn would seem to make sense. In any case, Hatoyama’s early-departure musings notwithstanding, Kan has likely achieved his main goal: to not be unceremoniously forced from office, and to have his departure take place in a relatively orderly fashion via internal DPJ deliberations.
Kan may also have prevented a breakup of the DPJ. The party remains an unruly group, with competing centers of power. But the desire to remain in control of the government could be enough to keep the disparate elements together, at least for a while longer.
It remains very unclear what remains of the on-again, off-again political relationship between Hatoyama and Ozawa.
Kan will have considerably more room to try to govern, something he is actually interested in, despite the somewhat unfair accusations that he has mismanaged events since March 11. With Ozawa and his supporters likely to depart, remaining dissidents somewhat disarmed, and younger aspirants to party leadership mollified by the prospect of his near-term departure, Kan will try to reassert the reform program he dubs the “Third Opening” of Japan.
It also seems likely Kan will be in office for a long-delayed summit meeting with President Obama, now tentatively set for sometime in September, though postponement once again until Kan’s successor is in place is a possibility. The two governments may have more to say about that when their respective defense and foreign ministers meet in a “2+2” meeting later this month.