The Democratic Party of Japan’s victories Sunday in two Upper House by-elections indicate Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s new administration is still on its honeymoon since the DPJ’s landslide victory in the Aug. 30 general election.
But Hatoyama’s “conductor-style” oversight of his Cabinet — in stark contrast to DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa’s “dictatorial” rule in party politics, may pose a future threat for an administration already criticized for its ministers’ individualistic and often conflicting stances on key issues, experts warned.
Despite the low voter turnout in Sunday’s races, the victories by Yoichi Kaneko in Kanagawa and Hirokazu Tsuchida in Shizuoka confirmed that the public still supports the new administration as it speeds through its second month in power.
The victories were also the result of Ozawa’s strict but effective election tactics as he gears up to lead the DPJ in trying to win a simple majority in next summer’s Upper House election, where half of the chamber’s 252 seats will be up for grabs.
But political observers warned that seeds of possible discord within the Cabinet are already growing, due mainly to Hatoyama’s soft approach to leadership.
“I’m the conductor — I try to make sure that everyone performs their best,” Hatoyama told reporters Oct. 19 when describing his role in the government.
“As prime minister, there obviously are times when my leadership is called for — but to what extent should the conductor’s presence be felt? What’s most important is creating harmony,” he said.
Despite Hatoyama’s emphasis on harmony, the initial budgetary requests submitted by ministries and agencies for fiscal 2010 topped ¥95 trillion — an all-time high even though the DPJ says it wants to reduce wasteful spending.
The Cabinet will now have to find new ways to cut unnecessary spending as it tries to hold the budget at ¥92 trillion — the target presented by Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii — in the process of drafting the budget toward the end of the year.
In another instance of internal discord, when Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano recently said the government considered asking municipalities to bear part of the burden in financing the administration’s pledge to provide a monthly child-care allowance — one of the DPJ’s key campaign vows — he immediately faced strong opposition from mayors and his fellow ministers.
Hatoyama had to scramble to clarify that the central government intends to stick to its initial plan of funding the entire program.
This style of decision-making — where ministers speed ahead in raising issues before reaching an accord within the Cabinet — has become increasingly frequent in recent weeks.
“The DPJ’s victories (in the by-elections) was only natural, considering the circumstances,” said Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor of media and politics at Gakushuin Women’s College in Tokyo. “I believe a greater issue here is Hatoyama’s leadership, or rather, his lack of it.”
Ishizawa explained that the public still hasn’t woken up from the regime change hoopla, and it was no surprise the DPJ was able to win the by-elections.
The wins were also due in part to the failure of the Liberal Democratic Party — still struggling from its crushing Aug. 30 election defeat — to present the public with a fresh image, Ishizawa added.
The two by-elections were considered the first electoral test for LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki, who won the party’s top post late last month, following the resignation of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Taro Aso.
The LDP candidates bit the dust after the party failed to obtain support from its former coalition partner, New Komeito, or spark voter interest.
Despite the DPJ’s easy wins, however, Ishizawa warned, “You never know what might happen in the next six months.
“Hatoyama has so for failed to present a clear direction on how he intends to lead the administration, but the public has been turning a blind eye to his faults as a leader,” he said.
True, Hatoyama has a history of flip-flopping on key issues.
During his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Hatoyama reassured Obama that the Japan-U.S. alliance is “a key pillar of the security of Japan and Japanese foreign policy.”
However, Hatoyama said at a trilateral meeting with his counterparts from China and South Korea earlier this month that Japan has been depending too much on the U.S., effectively nullifying his previous remarks and raising U.S. suspicions about Japan’s stance toward the alliance.
“You could say Hatoyama is even more gaffe-prone than Aso,” Ishizawa said. “It’s not too late — from now on he needs to be very, very careful with what he says.”
Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University in Tokyo, said the new Cabinet was bound to face further turbulence as it tries to fulfill its many campaign pledges while appealing to the public with an image of robust change.
“Ozawa will do anything to win elections — you could say his style of governance is dictatorial,” Iwai said.
“The Hatoyama Cabinet in turn is more liberal and its main aim is in disclosing its decision-making process,” Iwai said, explaining that under such circumstances it’s only natural that the Cabinet will be rocked by various opinions.
“That’s not a bad thing — the key is to prioritize policies and to clarify how to fund them,” Iwai said.
But he cautioned that with Monday’s kickoff of the administration’s first extraordinary Diet session, there is a possibility that Hatoyama and Ozawa’s radically different style of management will create tension.
“As secretary general, Ozawa has a say in Diet proceedings,” Iwai said.
So far the Cabinet and the DPJ have operated on separate planes, with Ozawa concentrating his energy on election strategy and party coordination, while the Cabinet busies itself with governing.
“But as the Diet session begins, that relationship is bound to change — the Cabinet and the DPJ will now have to cooperate to legislate bills,” Iwai said.
“I must say I’m a tad concerned about how this relationship might unfold.”