For all the talk about Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s supposedly looming resignation, analysts and politicians alike keep forgetting two things: Kan remains determined to stay in office for at least several more months, and legally Kan’s opponents have no means to dislodge him.
Never was this more clear than on Monday, when Kan made small but highly-significant changes to his Cabinet lineup. Lame duck prime ministers don’t usually undertake Cabinet reshuffles, however slight.
Kan coupled the shakeup with disclosure, for the first time, of clear criteria he will use to time his departure: passage of a second supplemental budget, adoption of legislation authorizing the issuance of bonds to finance some 40 percent of the current budget, and adoption of legislation requiring electric power company usage of renewable energy sources.
Kan’s critics, especially leaders of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), argue that nothing can get done in the Diet until Kan leaves office. Kan, by contrast, argues that he will only leave office once the LDP and others cooperate to pass critical legislation relating to post-earthquake/tsunami reconstruction efforts. Kan in many ways has the upper hand, since failure to cooperate will expose the LDP to the wrath of a public that has had its fill of pointless political maneuverings.
MIKI SIMILARITIES: In some ways Kan’s situation is similar to that faced by Prime Minister Takeo Miki in 1976, when LDP leaders launched a “Down with Miki” (Miki oroshi) campaign after Miki refused to prevent the arrest of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka for his involvement in the Lockheed bribery scandal. At the time, Miki rebuffed efforts to oust him, arguing that the LDP could replace him as party president at any time, but not as prime minister until his term expired. Miki was not forced out until a Lower House election in late 1976 resulted in big losses for the LDP. At the time, the four-year term of Lower House members expired, requiring a new election for prime minister. It was only the expiration of his term, not political maneuvering, that dislodged Miki from office.
KAN’S TERMS: Kan, of course, will not last until the end of his term, which expires in 2013. But a no-confidence motion against him failed earlier this month, after some deft political maneuvering by the prime minister himself. By tradition, only one no-confidence motion can be filed per Diet session, leaving his critics with little legal leverage.
Kan does not want to go down as a failed prime minister. He has personal and good-government motivations. The personal are straight-forward; no one wants to be known as an unsuccessful leader. The good-government factor is less-obvious, but real. Kan believes he is bringing important, substantial changes to Japan, both though his struggle to rearrange the power balance between the bureaucracy and the political world, and through promotion of a two-party system, which implies a viable Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Kan is determined to not be unceremoniously dumped. His critics have assumed Kan would simply fold under pressure, much as his four predecessors did; all lasted less than one year in office. But that has consistently shown to be wrong. He wants to leave on terms he considers both personally and politically acceptable.
Working in Kan’s favor is the lack of a compelling reason for his ouster. The public is not enamored of Kan. Polls go back and forth as to how long the public thinks Kan should stay in office. But the public is even more suspicious of the motives of those, especially within the LDP, who want to oust him. The public has also long desired stability in the prime minister’s office – a halt to the revolving door that has plagued the government’s top post for years.
By insisting he remain in office, Kan has actually strengthened the DPJ, quieting at least for now talk of a ‘grand coalition’ with the unpopular LDP. The DPJ, while still unsteady at times, is more stable than many analysts expected would be the case, and the eventual transition to Kan’s successor is likely to be orderly.
EYE ON ENERGY: At a Monday night press conference following the Cabinet adjustments, Kan did not give a timeframe for expected passage of his three legislative priorities. Most attention is focused on the two budget-related bills. But Kan seems to harbor particular interest in the renewable energy issue.
As a former civic activist, Kan would like to see a weakening of what many see as a nest of unscrupulous political influence bound up in the electric power industry. The LDP has particularly strong ties with the industry, which Kan views as a weakness for the country and a political weapon for the DPJ. Kan has not said what he would do if the LDP were to block his proposed renewable energy legislation, but it is not inconceivable he would threaten a dissolution of the Diet and a general election. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power catastrophe, accusations of corrupt ties between the LDP and the electric power industry could be a powerful campaign weapon for the DPJ.
Kan is not likely to take that step, as it would risk the DPJ’s substantial Lower House majority and control of central government’s ministries. But the fact that Kan could wield the threat shows the leverage he still has, despite his beleaguered status.
COURSE OF EVENTS: Top DPJ leaders, who have been meeting without Kan, envision a new Cabinet taking office in late August or early September, arguing that the “torch” of leadership should pass to the next generation of party leaders late in the current 70-day extended Diet session. The executives also say that this new government should formulate the next reconstruction budget.
It remains to be seen if Kan will abide by this schedule. If the recent past is any guide, he won’t.
Meanwhile, Kan is showing up for work every day, utilizing the unusual circumstances in Japan today to stay in power. Kan knows that his critics do not want to be seen as undermining government efforts to address rebuilding in the country’s Tohoku region that was devastated on March 11.
In fact, the government’s headquarters for Tohoku reconstruction, which came into force by legislation passed last week, will begin meetings this week, led by Ryu Matsumoto, whom Kan named to a new ministerial post for reconstruction. Kan will also be aided by rising star Goshi Hosono, who was named to the newly-created state ministerial post for dealing with the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
As long as Kan is promoting reconstruction in the national interest, his critics will have to tread lightly. He may be embattled, but Kan could very well continue to defy expectations of an early departure.