Back when it was still in the opposition camp, the Democratic Party of Japan used to criticize the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party for its frequent shuffling of prime ministers, without an election.
Then came Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s sudden resignation announcement after only being in office some eight months since his party won last summer’s general election in a historic landslide, sending the LDP packing. No general election will precede the choice of his successor as well.
While his resignation and DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa’s departure from the party’s No. 2 post are sending ripples through the turbulent political arena, experts agree that the exit of the two most powerful and controversial figures in the party could provide the DPJ with a much-needed boost ahead of the July Upper House election.
“Replacing the prime minister with a new face could help regain some of the public support the DPJ has lost through Hatoyama’s lack of leadership and Ozawa’s shady image as a backroom fixer,” said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University.
Nakano, however, was quick to add that the DPJ nevertheless should expect heavy fire from the opposition for changing faces with only two weeks to go before the current Diet session wraps up — and with many bills still waiting on the shelf.
The DPJ plans on holding a joint plenary meeting with its lawmakers in both chambers Friday to pick a new party president, who would be later voted in as prime minister in the Diet. A new Cabinet is expected to be formed Monday.
The Diet session is to end on schedule on June 16, and the Upper House poll held July 11.
But with time running short, it seems unlikely that new, young DPJ members could prepare for the race. Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who also had served as DPJ president in the past, has been deemed by some as the top contender to lead the nation.
“I would be surprised if the DPJ has a competitive election to replace Hatoyama — the inside money seems to be on Kan, and while Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada could challenge him, I doubt anyone will be a serious contender,” said political commentator Tobias Harris.
Experts say Kan, a former health minister who rose to fame for exposing in 1996 the ministry’s responsibility for the spread of tainted blood, has kept his distance from the contentious Futenma air base relocation issue, giving him an advantage over other possible candidates, including Okada and land minister Seiji Maehara, who also assumes the role of minister in charge of Okinawa affairs.
Sophia University’s Nakano said that with Kan’s past record of clashing with bureaucrats and striving for a policymaking system based on leadership by politicians, he would present a more challenging figure for the opposition camp.
“For the LDP, Hatoyama and Ozawa were an easy target — they will have a more difficult time with Kan at the top,” Nakano said.
And while the DPJ works to revamp its image under a new Cabinet, Nakano said it is likely Ozawa will continue to be responsible for election tactics, either by assuming a less prestigious party post or from behind the scenes.
But it is still unknown at this point whether Hatoyama’s resignation will significantly increase the DPJ’s chances in the Upper House election.
With the Social Democratic Party recently bolting from the ruling coalition, the DPJ possesses a threadbare majority in the Upper House, and faces a serious chance of losing its grip over the chamber if the winds blow against them in the election.
Meanwhile, the LDP has also suffered from a series of defections and internal bickering and has yet to gain from the DPJ’s unpopularity and policy blunders.
Harris said that while Ozawa has been pursuing a strategy of courting traditional LDP interest groups, including postmasters and farmers associations with benefits, the DPJ needs to concentrate on independent voters if it seriously hopes to attract votes.
“The mass of independent, floating voters are the key to winning any election now, and this government did nothing but alienate them since taking power,” Harris said.
But with public approval of the administration at a record low, Harris said “the DPJ’s chances in the Upper House election can only improve.”
Hatoyama’s time at the top was marked by a series of broken promises and money scandals that have caused the Cabinet’s approval rating, which was above 70 percent when the DPJ came into power, to nose dive, with the latest polls showing only 20 percent of the public favored the administration.
Both Hatoyama and Ozawa have been hit by political funding scandals that have pushed the party’s approval ratings down in the past months, with Hatoyama receiving vast amounts of money from his mother without paying proper gift taxes.
Hatoyama’s flip-flops over his reneged promise to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside Okinawa has also angered Okinawans and voters nationwide.
His announcement to relocate the base within the prefecture last Friday prompted the SDP to leave the ruling bloc and angered DPJ lawmakers facing an election under an unpopular leader.