2010 make or break for the DPJ

July election for control of the Upper House could decide administration's fate

by Jun Hongo

2009 will be remembered as a turning point in postwar politics, a time when voters ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and put the Democratic Party of Japan in power.

2010 will see the DPJ-led coalition face its first serious electoral trial, with the Upper House election in July likely to be a make-or-break event for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

“The final battle will take place next July,” DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa told reporters during a visit to China in December.

“If we obtain a (sole DPJ) majority, the foundation of our government will be strengthened. We can carry out bold actions in our domestic policies, foreign affairs and other issues,” said Ozawa, who is often referred to as the administration’s puppet master.

Analysts see Ozawa’s comment as epitomizing how the 2010 Upper House election will seal the fate of the ruling bloc and shape the year in politics.

The first months of the DPJ-led administration often saw Hatoyama trying to walk a thin line while his coalition partners the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) talked big. This was because splitting with the two minor parties would destabilize the DPJ, which has only 115 seats in the 242-seat upper chamber. Without its coalition majority in both the Upper and Lower houses, the DPJ would be unable to pass any of its bills or achieve its policy pledges.

But if the DPJ can pick up seven more seats in the July election, the party will be free to carry out its policies without reserve.

“The coalition is secondary for Ozawa if the DPJ can get the Upper House majority. Depending on the results of the election, the DPJ could simply go with a new partner, such as New Party Nippon,” Tetsuro Kato, a social sciences professor at Hitotsubashi University in Kunitachi, Tokyo, told The Japan Times.

Events in the first three months of the ruling coalition’s life show that if the DPJ had held a majority in the Upper House, the outcome of the government’s actions might have been drastically different.

Last month, the DPJ and Kokumin Shinto exchanged blows over the fiscal year’s second extra budget, which Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan had originally pictured in the neighborhood of ¥2.7 trillion. Kokumin Shinto leader Shizuka Kamei criticized that as being too low and pushed for an ¥11 trillion spending package. They met halfway, with the Cabinet approving a ¥7.2 trillion budget plan.

The SDP meanwhile made the best of its five seats in the Upper House, essentially freezing a 2006 accord between Tokyo and Washington to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.

Mizuho Fukushima, who in December was returned to her position as SDP president without having to face a vote, threatened to leave the three-party ruling bloc if the airfield remains in Okinawa — as agreed to under the 2006 accord.

“If this Cabinet decides to build a base over the sea in the coastal area of Henoko (Okinawa), the SDP and I will have to make a grave decision,” she told a meeting with party executives.

Although Washington continued to pressure Tokyo to honor the agreement, the administration announced Dec. 15 it was putting off resolving the relocation question until sometime in 2010. Analysts say the DPJ’s decision to partner with the pacifist SDP had a strong effect on the Japan-U.S. relationship, which had been sailing along under LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi just a few years ago.

But will the DPJ-SDP-Kokumin Shinto balance of power carry on beyond July’s election?

Hitotsubashi University’s Kato predicted the trilateral partnership may be reformed regardless of voter support toward the DPJ.

The SDP and Kokumin Shinto don’t have much going for them, meaning they may have a tough time holding on to their crucial seats, he said.

Meanwhile, the LDP is struggling to get back on its feet after the historic loss it suffered in August, with analysts predicting a full makeover if it loses again in the Upper House election.

“LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki hasn’t made much impact so far,” said Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus at Keio University in Tokyo, adding that the largest opposition party has yet to show any unity under its new leader.

While some lawmakers have already announced they are leaving the beleaguered party, Horie said more could follow and try their luck as independents. The DPJ may even head-hunt those tempted to leave the LDP, possibly leading to the permanent ruin of the once-dominant party.

The LDP “could have a new chief” soon after the ballots are counted in July, Horie said.

With its rivals struggling, the key for the DPJ to secure a majority in the Upper House could be how it handles the skeletons in its own closet.

One major issue is Prime Minister Hatoyama’s political money scandal, which involved falsified political funding reports that included a total of ¥900 million in “loans” from his mother. Part of the money was recorded as donations by dead people and people who never made a monetary contribution.

Hatoyama submitted a written statement to prosecutors denying involvement in the falsifications and paid a ¥60 million gift tax in late December, but the opposition will no doubt try to highlight the affair during the ordinary Diet session that gets under way this month.

DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa is also facing a series of scandals, the latest being an unreported purchase of a ¥400 million property in Tokyo in 2004 that reportedly involved shady fund transfers.

“All in all, its very likely the DPJ will end up gaining the majority in the Upper House,” Keio University’s Horie said. “But there are factors that could quickly change that likelihood, and one of them is how the prosecutors handle Ozawa’s case.”

Another potential problem for the DPJ is its backpedaling on key pledges made during last summer’s election campaign that may backfire with voters come July.

The DPJ has nixed some major political pledges it wooed voters with last summer, including a promise to terminate the provisional car-related taxes. The decision, revealed in late December, is believed to have caused the Cabinet’s support rate to dip below 50 percent as the year came to a close.

Not living up to its promises “gives the impression the DPJ can and will renege on its political pledges,” said Kazuaki Tanaka, a professor emeritus at Takushoku University.

The fallout of the DPJ not explaining to the public why it felt compelled to change course could come home to roost in July, Tanaka said.

“If they made an error in their manifesto, they need to call it an error,” he said, adding that until it does so, every slogan the DPJ uses in the Upper House campaign will be taken with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, Keio University’s Horie said similar drops in support rates afflicted previous LDP administrations, including those of Taro Aso and Yasuo Fukuda, both of whom resigned about a year after taking office. But Hatoyama’s slump is different in nature because he was put in office following a general election, unlike his predecessor, Aso, and before him Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, who was installed by the LDP when the popular Koizumi stepped down.

Hatoyama shouldn’t be concerned by such numbers, Horie said. Instead, he should focus on handling his list of chores with flexibility to appeal to voters.

“For example, the DPJ administration has practically postponed introducing toll-free expressways. But to make a positive impact on the economy, they could kick off the project by first allowing trucks to ride free,” he said.

Horie warned that strengthening the economy will be crucial for Hatoyama going into the Upper House showdown.

“If another economic downturn takes place in the beginning of 2010, it will probably not come to an end for some months,” he said. “The DPJ could feel some repercussions if the economy remains frail until right before the voting takes place.”