The first anniversary of Naoto Kan’s prime ministership arrived Wednesday amid a whirlwind of political maneuvering and speculation over when he would step down and whether the ruling and opposition parties can form a grand coalition.
Even as the nation struggles in the aftermath of the deadly tsunami and earthquake, and with the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, ruling and opposition party lawmakers have been engaged in horse-trading, triggering public ire and disappointment, especially among those in the disaster zones.
Despite his initial intention to delay his resignation several months, or even into next year, Kan will most likely be forced to step down by July, critics say. If so, he will become the fifth prime minister to quit since 2007.
“Kan kept the timing of his resignation vague on the chance that he may be able to get away with postponing it,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University. “I think a part of him was clinging to power, creating distrust among the other lawmakers, who sense that he is just going to draw out his resignation. . . . Voices calling for his early resignation will only get stronger.”
The three most likely exit scenarios are: He will hang on until the passage of the basic reconstruction bill, or until legislation is enacted to allow the issuance of deficit-covering government bonds to fund a large part of the fiscal 2011 initial budget, which is currently being debated in the Lower House. Third, he might wait for the drafting of the second supplementary budget for fiscal 2011, possibly in July.
The Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition force, and New Komeito have called on Kan to step down by the end of June, after the enactment of a basic reconstruction bill, possibly next week.
Meanwhile, lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan have begun publicly urging Kan to step down before August. The DPJ is now preparing to hold its presidential election either in July or August.
“There is no way Kan would last until August,” Kawakami said. The DPJ “is going to find something to call an achievement and pave the way for his resignation without making it look like he was dragged down.”
Regardless of how long Kan lasts, a harsh reality remains for the DPJ: the Upper House is held by the opposition camp.
Experts as well as lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition camps agree forming a grand coalition would speed passage of bills necessary to help the disaster-hit Tohoku region.
“There is a large possibility that a grand coalition will be formed because it benefits both sides,” said political commentator Hirotada Asakawa. “The DPJ wants backup because it is uncertain on its own and can split the responsibility. And for the LDP, it is a chance for the party to make its presence felt.”
Since early on, LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki has openly declared that his party would be willing to cooperate with the DPJ after Kan steps down.
But now, some LDP lawmakers, including party executives, are beginning to reconsider, insisting “a grand coalition without a policy agreement is out of the question.”
Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami, however, said this is simply political maneuvering to gain concessions from the DPJ.
“It’s psychological warfare,” Kawakami said. “The LDP has caved to the opposition, but in reality I think it desperately wants to become part of the government. By saying there is some reluctance within the LDP, it is trying to get the DPJ to compromise further.”
New Komeito has expressed reluctance to join the grand coalition, fearing it will lose relevance as the junior partner to two larger parties, Kawakami said.
Commentator Asakawa said the LDP is focused on two major points in negotiations: the timing of the next Lower House general election and the number of ministerial posts it can secure.
Since losing control of the government in the 2009 general election, the LDP has been struggling to make a comeback. Currently enjoying the highest support rate against the DPJ, the LDP favors a quick poll.
According to Jiji Press, the LDP has been the most popular party since November. The most recent data taken in May showed that 16.5 percent supported the LDP while only 10.2 percent chose the DPJ.
“The LDP wants the election within the year and it wants that guarantee while the DPJ wants to finish its term with the current number of Diet seats,” Asakawa said. Being able to form a coalition “depends on whether they can reach an understanding on this.”
And even after Kan steps down, the biggest question remains for the DPJ: Who’s next?
Among those floated as candidates are Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.
Regardless of who the DPJ chooses as its new leader, the president will have to build a working relationship with opposition forces, especially the LDP, to speed the delivery of much-needed disaster aid, pundits say.
Another major task is uniting the DPJ, which nearly splintered after kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and dozens of others expressed their intention to vote with the opposition on a no-confidence motion submitted last week against Kan.
Frustration with Kan had been steadily building since he moved in an “anti-Ozawa” direction. Although Ozawa’s party membership was suspended following his indictment over a political funds scandal, his influence remained strong enough to underscore the unrealized threat of several DPJ allies siding with the no-confidence bid.
Asakawa thinks the Ozawa faction may try and come up with its own presidential candidate but noted that the former party leader weakened himself by abstaining from the vote.
“This may be the final battle for the Ozawa group,” Asakawa said. “They may try and come up with an impressive candidate and hope for a turnabout . . . but I don’t think Ozawa has much leadership anymore.”