With a minor but crucial reshuffle Friday, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda prepared to tackle his most important and difficult task — raising taxes.
Noda has high hopes for Katsuya Okada as deputy prime minister, because he is expected to have what it takes to persuade the opposition camp to join discussions on the political taboo, which is being broached as health care costs continue to swell in line with the nation’s rapidly graying population.
Critics hailed Okada’s appointment as a smart move. The Diet veteran is a policy-oriented lawmaker who is not afraid to make use of his connections with the opposition camp.
“I think that Prime Minister Noda will be able to execute more leadership than he has been doing with the old lineup,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University. “Okada is known to have the ability to implement policies . . . and with his influence and authority, Noda’s leadership is likely to grow stronger.”
But his appointment may trigger resentment from supporters of indicted former Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa, who controls the DPJ’s largest faction. Okada has been labeled by some as “anti-Ozawa.”
Kawakami said the new Cabinet lineup is more practical than the first one and the executives Noda hand-picked in September were focused mainly on promoting unity to appease the more than 100 members in the Ozawa clan.
For example, Toshio Ogawa is a former deputy justice minister and Jin Matsubara, a conservative, has worked closely on the North Korea abduction issue.
“I can see that Noda was more creative with his selections. By including various experts, his new Cabinet is practical and gives off an image of improvement,” Kawakami said.
Last week, the Noda administration officially approved a draft plan to double the consumption tax to 10 percent by October 2015. Now the prime minister must ask the opposition to help him turn that plan into law.
But so far, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, the two largest opposition parties, have refused to play ball for different reasons. The LDP, which proposed the tax hike in the first place, objects to the fact that it wasn’t part of the DPJ’s manifesto. New Komeito objected because it thinks the DPJ’s social security plan is too vague.
And Noda and his new Cabinet’s ability to ease the two sides into bipartisan debate will be put to the test.
Pundits say that one way to do so is to first reach out to the public and create an environment where political parties will no longer be able to snub negotiations.
“Prime Minister Noda needs to send a strong message to the public to explain why the tax hike is necessary now and gain the public’s support. He must go all out and persuade the public that this is not an issue about (tit-for-tat politics) and make the LDP and New Komeito join the talks,” Kawakami said.
Internally, however, there may be some dissatisfaction within the Ozawa group because Okada was one of the executives who backed the decision to suspend Ozawa’s membership following his mandatory indictment over alleged violations of the Political Funds Control Law.
Ozawa is opposed to raising taxes. At the end of December, about 10 members of his faction fled the DPJ and formed a new political party to protest Noda’s plan.
But political observers said Ozawa’s grip on his faction is waning, especially since his trial is continuing and his minions have agreed not to make too much noise in the meantime.
“Ozawa’s influence is weakening. He couldn’t even control any of the members who decided to leave the party,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.
In a way, Noda might have chosen Okada with Ozawa’s declining influence in mind, Iwai said.
But unity did seem to play a part in Noda’s selection of Naoki Tanaka as defense minister, according to Hirotada Asakawa and other political analysts. The Upper House lawmaker is married to former LDP Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, another close Ozawa ally.
Like Ozawa, he and his wife left the LDP and wound up in the DPJ.
“Noda appointed Tanaka as a minister, apparently considering Ozawa’s influence over the DPJ,” Asakawa said. “If the appointment is made based on his background, he doesn’t seem right for the post.”
Tanaka, a veteran lawmaker with a couple of decades of Diet experience under his belt, served as a parliamentary vice minister of the Foreign Ministry in 1989 and vice farm minister in 2001. He was a member of the Financial Affairs Committee and the Special Committee on Okinawa and Northern Problems. His wife, a well-known politician, is the daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.
Tanaka faces major tasks, including the U.S. base relocation issue in Okinawa. However, he has little experience in defense matters. The government plans to seek permission from Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to reclaim land in the waters off Henoko to build an airfield as a replacement for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but the governor has urged the central government to move the base outside the prefecture.
“No one knows if Tanaka can handle” the relocation issue, Nihon University’s Iwai said. “But the appointment must have been a desperate measure” for party unity.
The DPJ had been completely divided under the leadership of Noda’s predecessor, Naoto Kan, who embarked on an anti-Ozawa crusade. This made Noda’s first task smoothing out internal strife.
But if Ozawa is found innocent in April, he and his group may gain momentum and take the opportunity to turn on Noda and his bid to hike the sales tax.
Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami said the situation could ultimately lead to a political realignment or an election over the tax hike.