It was less than three months ago that Prime Minister Naoto Kan was flying high, defeating his political foe Ichiro Ozawa in the Democratic Party of Japan presidential election and enjoying a public support rate of better than 60 percent.
But that support has since plunged to around 20 percent after a number of political blunders, ranging from mishandling the diplomatic crisis with Beijing and the embarrassing online leak of Japan Coast Guard video clips to recent gaffes by key Cabinet ministers.
Kan will face even tougher challenges in January, with the fate of his already reeling Cabinet in the balance, observers say.
The year’s ordinary Diet session will be getting under way, with the critically important fiscal 2011 budget and its related bills first and foremost on the agenda.
But staring the administration straight in the face is the agreement, reached Monday, between the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito to boycott all Diet sessions attended by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi.
The opposition-controlled Upper House has already passed censure motions against the two ministers, providing the main opposition forces with a pretext to keep boycotting Diet sessions to block passage of key government-sponsored bills.
To avoid legislative gridlock from the beginning of the session, some DPJ members have started calling for a full-scale Cabinet reshuffle to replace Sengoku and Mabuchi, a move that could further cripple Kan’s political clout within his own party.
“Because of the censure motions, the Diet will sooner or later be in deadlock. (Kan) should conduct a full-scale Cabinet reshuffle,” said former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, a DPJ lawmaker.
If Kan is going to stabilize his political base within the party, he needs to include close Ozawa allies in the Cabinet, a DPJ lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.
“Internally, the party has been shaky since Kan excluded Ozawa’s key aides from the Cabinet in September,” the lawmaker said. “It’s time he should compromise.”
Kan faces a dilemma, because putting allies of Ozawa, the party kingpin facing indictment over a funds scandal, in the Cabinet might ease the simmering discontent within the party, but knuckling under and compromising with his political rival could also cause a further plunge in his public support rate, another DPJ source said.
Even if he can avoid an opposition boycott in the next Diet session, Kan is almost certain to face gridlock while trying to get the fiscal 2011 budget and related bills passed by the end of March.
One of his few options to break the impasse would be to persuade a sufficient number of opposition parties to vote for the budget package by agreeing to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election. Another would be to reach out and form a grand coalition with some of the opposition parties, senior DPJ members say.
“If the situation remains as it is, there may be an election next year,” former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said during a lecture last Sunday. “(If that is the case) it’s going to be a tough election.”
“Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) is a very important partner. But we have to consider if we can make our way through under the current coalition framework,” former internal affairs minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi said on a Sunday TV political talk show.
Kan doesn’t want to call an election while his support rate is this low. And expanding the coalition, for instance bringing in the LDP or New Komeito, is a difficult proposition, given the divisive sniping during Diet debates between the ruling and opposition forces.
Ironically when the LDP was in power and its support rate was falling, the notion of a grand coalition with the DPJ was floated and Ozawa warmed to it, only to see his party, then the main opposition force, sternly shoot down the notion.
Speculation is also mounting that Kan will invite Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), a new party consisting of former LDP members, to join the coalition after he met alone with party coleader Kaoru Yosano on Nov. 18.
Political commentator Hirotada Asakawa said cobbling together a grand coalition with the LDP is the only way Kan’s Cabinet can survive.
If Kan doesn’t seek such an alliance, “he will have to continue operating in an unstable situation,” said Asakawa, adding the LDP would complement the DPJ with its abundant experience as the ruling party.
The extraordinary Diet session that wrapped up Friday showed how he will handle the divided Diet.
As it turned out, the supplementary budget to fund a ¥5.1 trillion stimulus package barely made it through amid opposition efforts to stall deliberations on a number of key government-sponsored bills.
“It took about a month to pass the extra budget after the government submitted it Oct. 29,” a senior government official lamented. “The time it took is like that for a main budget.”
At first, opposition parties were willing to enter negotiations on contentious bills, including the extra budget. But the government’s blunders in handling the diplomatic row with Beijing and Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida’s recent gaffe making light of his Diet duties gave the opposition room to grow more confrontational.
Yanagida resigned last week before a censure motion against him was submitted to the Upper House. He had told his supporters Nov. 14 that he only has to remember two phrases when he is stuck for an answer in the Diet: “I refrain from making comments on a specific issue” and “We’re dealing with the matter based on laws and evidence.”
Key bills were stuck in limbo at the end of the extraordinary session. Of 37 government-sponsored bills submitted, including those carried over from the previous session, only 13 were passed.
A package of bills on realigning the Japan Post group into three companies from the current five — strongly advocated by coalition partner Kokumin Shinto — and a bill to ban temp workers from being dispatched to manufacturers will be carried over to the next session.
On Wednesday, Kokumin Shinto leader Shizuka Kamei told a news conference Kan has to choose between the alliance with his party and cooperation with the Social Democratic Party or go join hands with the LDP and New Komeito.
“(Kan) can’t change the fact that the DPJ lacks a majority in the Upper House, not until the next Upper House election,” Kamei said.
“If he is going to manage politics in that situation, he needs to choose whether to put weight on the relationship between Kokumin Shinto and the SDP (to override the Upper House with a two-thirds vote in the Lower House) or seek cooperation from New Komeito and the LDP.”