In the four months since winning the Democratic Party of Japan presidential election, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has survived by taking a cautious approach to governing, managing to compile the 2012 budget and several bills to finance restoration of the disaster-hit Tohoku region.
But 2012 will be a rocky year for Noda, observers say. In the divided Diet, where the opposition controls the Upper House, Noda will struggle to pass several key bills that will see him seeking cooperation from opposition parties while dealing with recalcitrant members of his own party.
“He made fewer enemies compared with (former Prime Minister Naoto) Kan, but it doesn’t mean that rebuilding his dwindling support rate and realizing policies will become any easier” this year, said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.
One of the biggest challenges for Noda will be getting the opposition to play ball on social security and tax reform.
To fund swelling expenses for social security services — including welfare and health care — the Cabinet in July approved a plan to double the 5 percent sales tax in stages by the mid-2010s.
The DPJ, which aims to draft a basic plan for social security and tax reforms with the government, managed to reach a united agreement Thursday to raise the sales tax to 8 percent in April 2014, and then 10 percent in October 2015. The decision was reached after days of heated debate within the party, which included the defection of nine DPJ lawmakers, who submitted their resignations Wednesday to protest the plan and Noda’s policies.
The government, which adopted the plan, and the DPJ hope to begin discussions with the opposition soon so a broad outline of the legislation can be compiled and submitted to the Diet by March as part of a related bill.
“We have to manage fiscal policy with a sense of crisis,” Noda said. “We cannot avoid the reforms to secure stable financial resources to support the social security system.”
But despite the sense of urgency Noda has tried to convey, the tax hike remains extremely unpopular.
According to a survey of 2,000 voters conducted by Jiji Press from Dec. 9 to 12, 53.3 percent of the public is opposed to the tax hike, up 2.6 points from the same period in November.
The growing opposition may already be taking a toll on Noda’s administration — the Cabinet’s disapproval rate rose 5.8 points to 41.8 percent from November, the Jiji survey said.
The issue has also galvanized the two major opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, which both slammed the DPJ for breaking its 2009 campaign pledge not to raise the sales tax. Both opposition parties are determined to block any move toward a tax hike.
“It’s possible that the LDP and New Komeito will submit a no-confidence vote against the prime minister” for reneging on campaign pledges, Nakano said. “And they will apply the usual tactic — reject any discussions until the prime minister decides to dissolve the Lower House or to quit.”
Inside the DPJ, opposition to the tax hike from former party leader Ichiro Ozawa and his allies will be another headache for Noda.
Ozawa, who is on trial over political funds irregularities, still wields influence in the party because his faction remains the largest with about 120 loyalists.
Ozawa, who says the tax hike diverges from the party’s campaign platform, launched a study group on Dec. 21, apparently attempting to influence Noda’s stance on the social welfare and tax reforms. Although there were fewer participants compared to a study session in August, 100 loyalists joined the group this time.
Of the nine DPJ lawmakers who quit the party Wednesday, several are Ozawa allies. They said they would launch a new party named “kizuna,” which means human bonds or solidarity.
Sophia University’s Nakano said the damage to Noda’s administration may become bigger if more DPJ lawmakers decide to bolt.
“So far the damage is limited because the number (of lawmakers who decided to leave) is small compared with the overwhelming majority of DPJ members in the Lower House, and none of them is politically influential, but this issue will continue in the new year,” he said.
“I think it’s likely that there will be more criticism of a Noda administration that abandons the DPJ’s election promises, and more members may leave to form new parties.”
But whether Ozawa can retain his immense influence — let alone recover from his political wounds — remains uncertain.
“(Ozawa) is almost dead politically. I don’t think many young lawmakers will follow an Ozawa who is on trial,” said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University.
Nakano agreed. “He’s on trial. All his group can do is threaten Noda.”
Ozawa’s party membership was suspended by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and DPJ executives in February over his indictment in a funds scandal. This prevents him from attending formal party functions and running in the party leadership elections. The earliest he can regain membership is in April, when a ruling in his ongoing trial is expected.
Shizuka Kamei, head of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) a DPJ coalition partner, is also trying to distance himself and his party from the Noda administration, although the move appears unsuccessful so far.
Kamei was due to hold talks on forming a new party with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in late December, but the meeting was canceled. Ishihara criticized Kamei at a news conference on Dec. 22, saying he’s “only talking about power games,” a hallmark of Tokyo politics that has seen six prime ministers take office in five years.
Although internal conflicts may turn out to be minor, Noda will also face the daunting task of passing the bills that did not clear the extraordinary Diet session, which ended Dec. 9.
In fact, only 13 of the 38 bills submitted to the Diet were approved in the 51-day session — the lowest since 1991.
The abysmal rate has been attributed to the divided Diet, where the DPJ lacks a majority in the Upper House and needs opposition help to pass legislation.
Some of the key bills Noda hopes to pass include one aimed at cutting civil servants’ salaries by an average of 7.8 percent to raise funds for the Tohoku restoration effort, a bill to reform Japan Post Holdings Co., and a revised law on dispatch workers.
To persuade the opposition to cooperate, experts say Noda will first have to reshuffle the Cabinet and replace Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and Consumer Affairs Minister Kenji Yamaoka, who were both slapped with nonbinding censure motions in the Upper House.
The LDP and New Komeito targeted Ichikawa after Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Satoshi Tanaka used a euphemism for rape while describing the timing of a study needed to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma elsewhere in the prefecture.
His boss, Ichikawa, followed suit with a gaffe of his own, saying he didn’t know the details surrounding the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen.
Yamaoka, meanwhile, drew criticism for failing to report donations totaling ¥450,000 in 2008 from a health food company that was allegedly involved in a pyramid scheme — something his job requires him to combat.
Censure motions are not legally binding, but a Cabinet reshuffle may be needed because the LDP and New Komeito are likely to refuse any deliberations with the DPJ as long as the ministers keep their posts.
“Sooner or later, Noda will have to replace them. He won’t be able to break a deadlock by keeping them,” Sophia’s Nakano said of the tit-for-tat tactics.
But Noda will have to be careful in picking their replacements — for the sake of reuniting the DPJ — as Ichikawa and Yamaoka are Ozawa supporters, he said.
Noda’s term as DPJ president will also expire at the end of September, as he is serving the remainder of Kan’s term. If a challenger emerges and a presidential race kicks off in late summer, it may become another factor threatening Noda’s team.
Either way, Nakano said, the opposition will urge Noda, whose support is slipping, to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election.
“It’s highly possible that the DPJ will be cornered into a general election this year,” he said. “I don’t think he will last for a year.”
However, experts have also criticized the LDP and New Komeito for planning to warp the censure motions into an excuse for snubbing debate.
“It’s destructive if they reject any discussions in the Diet,” Nonaka said. “They’re applying the interpretation of censure motions too broadly.”
Nakano agreed, adding that the LDP should be criticized for applying tactics the DPJ used against them when they were in power.
“This will not bring any progress in Japanese politics,” he said. “The LDP suffered from censure motions the DPJ submitted, and they’re happily doing the same. I have to say it’s immature.”