Tokyo is in the dead of summer and if anything, things are only getting hotter in the political hub of Nagata-cho.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s woes continue as he tries to fend off foes threatening to hit him with either no-confidence or censure motions, and continues to confront deep divisions within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
Through it all, he has kept his focus on pursuing his goals, however contentious they may be, including raising the sales tax for the first time in 15 years and, at least for the summer power crunch, getting two idled nuclear reactors restarted.
Noda has repeatedly stressed that he hopes to “put an end to on-the-fence politics” — and that appears to be happening.
He now faces the pressing task of compiling an agenda beyond the tax hike as he gears up for the DPJ’s September presidential election, which he hopes to prevail in, critics said.
“The next presidential election is going to be extremely important. He needs to clarify what will come after the tax and social security reforms and set a new goal that can mend the rift in his party,” said Etsushi Tanifuji, a political science professor at Waseda University.
Noda’s close allies are hoping the new growth strategy approved by the Cabinet last week will help keep dissenters from focusing on the tax hike.
More than 70 DPJ members either voted against or abstained when the Lower House passed the tax hike bill in June, most arguing that the party, when it campaigned for the historic 2009 general election that brought it to power, pledged it would not raise the consumption levy.
Some DPJ politicians who opposed the tax hike then left the party, including kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, whose platform was credited with bringing the DPJ to power.
The Japan Revitalization Strategy that the Cabinet endorsed last week covers various fronts, including medical treatment, agriculture and the environment — areas the government estimates could create new markets worth more than ¥100 trillion and 4.2 million jobs.
The strategy also includes numerical goals for 2020, including having environment-friendly cars account for 50 percent of all vehicles in use and for free-trade agreements with other countries to account for 80 percent of all trade by the target year.
“For the dissenters, it is about whether they can get Noda to compromise on certain goals, as a tradeoff for the tax hike. They need to be able to demonstrate that they haven’t forgotten their starting point in 2009 and that they will make sure to prioritize creating a safety net for the people after the tax is raised,” Tanifuji said.
But overcoming the tax hike may be easier said than done.
Hiroshi Kawauchi, whose DPJ membership has been suspended till early September for voting against the tax hike, slammed Noda for pushing the increase, accusing him of being under the complete control of the Finance Ministry. Noda was finance minister before becoming prime minister last September.
“Politicians are supposed to form a government and implement policies while controlling the bureaucrats, but the Noda Cabinet is being completely manipulated by the bureaucrats,” Kawauchi said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “As a member of the ruling party, I intend to stand face to face with Mr. Noda — I am proud to say that I think that is the most important job as a lawmaker elected by the people.”
Kawauchi, a close ally of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who also voted against the tax bill, has been holding regular meetings with fellow dissidents and they are expected to put someone forward as a candidate against Noda.
It is likely their candidate will boast goals that run counter to Noda’s, including throwing out the sales tax hike, not restarting reactors and not participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement.
These echo the goals advocated by Ozawa and his new party, Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First), but Kawauchi said he intends to stay in the DPJ.
“The Noda Cabinet is not moving in the direction that the people are hoping for and we believe that a major debate should be held in the next presidential election so we can pursue policies that the public wants,” Kawauchi said. “We must change the party and we must change the government.”
But Yosuke Kondo, a lawmaker close to Noda, disagrees completely.
The Yamagata Prefecture lawmaker said that while it is important to achieve policies that benefit the people, Diet members should not become opportunists.
“If lawmakers just pursued policies based on opinion polls, there would be no need for politicians,” Kondo said, adding this would be a turn in the wrong direction.
Kondo noted that when Hatoyama was prime minister, he had promised to scrap the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma’s operations within Okinawa. He failed, dashing the hopes of the people in Okinawa.
This turn of events plus a funds scandal forced Hatoyama to step down.
Kondo stressed that Noda is the opposite of Hatoyama and expressed hope that he gets re-elected.
“What Mr. Hatoyama did was sinful. On the other hand, Mr. Noda is the exact opposite — he does not change his position, and his leadership has brought us this far,” Kondo said.
The political scheming and horse-trading looks set to intensify this week as the Liberal Democratic Party weighs whether to champion a vote of no-confidence and a censure motion against Noda for not clearly promising to dissolve the Lower House and call an election.
Separately, seven other smaller opposition parties, including Your Party, the Social Democratic Party and People’s Life First, are also set to submit a no-confidence motion in a bid to block enactment of the tax hike.
If a no-confidence motion is passed in the Lower House, Noda would either have to dissolve the chamber and call a snap election or his Cabinet would have to resign en masse, and presumably be replaced with another DPJ administration. For the bid to pass, all of the opposition parties and 15 or more DPJ lawmakers would have to support it.
But critics agree there is little likelihood that the DPJ rebels will side with the opposition camp because their re-election prospects would be grim and they ultimately want to avoid a political battle while the public is strongly critical of the party.
Waseda’s Tanifuji said an election now would be a big mistake because neither the DPJ nor the LDP have revealed an agenda beyond the tax hike, which the LDP voted for, and thus voters would not have a clear picture of who should govern.
“If the no-confidence motion is passed, it would be the end not only for the DPJ but for the LDP as well. People would be forced to vote in mass chaos without knowing what they are voting for,” Tanifuji said. “What can the people expect to happen (if) the LDP overthrows the DPJ? Nothing.”