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‘Freshness’ of Cabinet faces voter scrutiny

by Jun Hongo

The Democratic Party of Japan was quick to see in weekend opinion polls a reversal in its sagging fortunes after Naoto Kan was voted in as its president. The new prime minister has formed a Cabinet whose ranks include opponents to scandal-tainted DPJ strongman Ichiro Ozawa, who quit as secretary general last week.

But while critics said Kan showed guts in stifling Ozawa’s influence over the party, they also said the “fresh” Cabinet faces scrutiny by voters seeking to be sure of its true colors.

“It was a bold and courageous move by Kan to end Ozawa’s grip over the party,” Satoru Matsubara, an economics professor at Toyo University, said of Tuesday’s Cabinet appointments. But he noted government policies will probably remain unchanged from the previous administration.

With last week’s departure of Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ managed to distance itself from the pair’s political money scandals. But voters may come to realize little has changed policywise, as Kan will assume tasks left unresolved by the previous administration, including finalizing the details of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa.

“There isn’t much new to expect from the Cabinet lineup in regards to how the government will manage policy,” Matsubara said.

Kan was supposed to bring a clean start for the DPJ, as Hatoyama stressed last week that the party must regroup to regain public support. But most members of the new Cabinet are holdovers from Hatoyama’s administration, whose legacy is failing to live up to last summer’s election campaign vows.

Although Hirofumi Hirano — a key figure in the failed bid to move Futenma out of Okinawa — was replaced as chief Cabinet secretary by Yoshito Sengogku, land minister Seiji Maehara, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada kept their posts despite failing to work in sync to resolve the contentious issue.

Hatoyama stressed that his Cabinet succeeded in installing new child-rearing allowances and tuition-free high schools, but both projects remain unfinished, including finding the budgetary funds to continue providing the benefits.

Some of the architects of the deficient blueprint, including health minister Akira Nagatsuma, returned to the Cabinet.

Rounding out the list of recognizable faces is Kan himself, Hatoyama’s deputy prime minister.

“It can’t be said that Kan is off the hook over Futenma and other issues that took place under the previous administration,” Liberal Democratic Party member Shinjiro Koizumi said after Kan was voted in as prime minister by the Diet last week. “It will be the same regardless of who becomes the prime minister.”

The DPJ may have changed its look but will operate under the same policies that sank Hatoyama’s administration, Koizumi told reporters.

How will Kan pull everything off?

“Kan’s leadership is questionable at this point,” political analyst Minoru Morita said. The appointment of Renho and Yukio Edano — two DPJ lawmakers who gained media attention for cutting wasteful government spending — suggests Kan may focus on subtleties instead of presenting the bigger picture to the public.

“As much as waste-cutting is important, Kan needs to show what he intends to do with this country and demonstrate the direction he wants to follow,” Morita said. “For example, he said he will address the economic downturn, but hasn’t been specified any remedial measures.”

Kan has only said he will “take over what Hatoyama tried to accomplish,” including abiding by the agreement reached last month with Washington to relocate Futenma within Okinawa.

Some possible shifts under the new administration may be in fiscal policy, with Kan repeatedly stressing in the past the importance of fiscal discipline to stem the government debt. Kan has even suggested hiking the consumption tax.

But experts say such talk could dim the DPJ’s chances in the Upper House election expected for next month.

The mounting debt demands quick remedy, but any talk of a tax hike has been historically suicidal at the ballot box.

The LDP suffered a setback in the 1989 and 1990 elections by introducing the consumption tax.

“Political parties have failed to win an election after proposing a tax hike,” Toyo University’s Matsubara pointed out, but added Kan could touch on the issue despite the looming Upper House election.

Tax hikes aside, the outlook for the election remains uncertain despite the high approval rate the new Cabinet enjoys.

The DPJ is about a month late in finalizing its campaign platform ahead of the election, while some question whether DPJ Secretary General Edano — a junior politician who has distanced himself from Ozawa and his group — can unite the giant party and reach an agreement on its pledges.

Toyo University’s Matsubara said rewriting the platform can be double-edged, although Kan needs to demonstrate his leadership by drawing up a new DPJ vision.

“But changing the manifesto, which won the DPJ more than 300 seats in the Lower House last summer, could quickly become a target for criticism,” Matsubara said.

If the DPJ’s election strategy falters in the July poll, it will then be forced to pursue new coalition partners to get bills passed smoothly. But Kan’s relationship with its sole remaining coalition partner, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), is far from steady. Hatoyama exited less than a week after the Social Democratic Party left the ruling bloc over the Futenma fiasco.

On Tuesday, Kan met with Kokumin Shinto chief Shizuka Kamei and agreed to maintain the coalition, but the two clashed in March over Kamei’s brainchild postal reform rollback legislation, aimed at easing the privatization set in place by the LDP.

Kamei said Kan “does not have the ears” to listen, after Kan criticized his pitch to raise the cap on savings accounts at Japan Post’s banking unit.

Even if Kan manages all these pressing tasks, his job will still be on the line in September when the DPJ holds its next presidential election.

Some suspect that Ozawa, who has remained quiet since exiting as secretary general, may try to regain his grip over the party.

“Kan’s Cabinet is already finding itself in a difficult position, and will likely hit walls over many of DPJ policies,” political analyst Morita said.