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Splits, rumors of splits, and the hole if Kan splits

With its rate of approval dwindling fast, the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan has fallen into a “lame-duck” status, and the resultant “political vacuum” is likely to linger on for some time to come, as there is no clear prospect as to what kind of political landscape will emerge in the event of his stepping down.

North Korea’s shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23 appeared for a moment to give the Kan government breathing room because this was no time for his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the opposition forces to engage in bickering at a time when the nation faced a serious national crisis.

Such a truce did not last long, as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and other opposition parties on the evening of Nov. 26 passed a censure resolution against two Cabinet ministers — Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and infrastructure and transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi — in the Upper House, where the opposition has a majority.

Although the censure resolutions do not legally force the two to resign, their passage represents a serious blow to the government and the ruling party. Kan is reported to show little or no sign of how he plans to tide over the troubles surrounding him. Meanwhile, the number of politicians calling on him at his office has plummeted to an unusually low level.

Sengoku was playing a leading role in taking questions from opposition members in parliamentary deliberations, apparently as part of an effort to prevent Kan from making mistakes in his answers.

But Sengoku’s health does not appear to be strong enough to survive tough duties indefinitely, since he was named to hold the concurrent post of justice minister after Minoru Yanagida was forced to step down following a verbal gaffe.

Meanwhile, a Fuji News Network opinion poll shows the Kan Cabinet’s rate of approval — which has declined since it mishandled the aftermath of the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships in September — plunging to 21.8 percent, while the percentage of those supporting his DPJ fell to 18.9 percent, trailing the LDP’s 21.9 percent.

If history is any yardstick, resignation appears to be the only course of action left for Kan. Moving fast to take advantage of this situation is Ichiro Ozawa, who lost a close fight to Kan in September in the election of the DPJ president. He has been warning “freshman” lawmakers, who gained their Lower House seats last year, that the dissolution of the Lower House and a new general election are imminent. But Ozawa’s power and influence are no longer what they used to be as he faces indictment on a charge of improper reporting of political funds

The opposition parties have long insisted on having Ozawa testify before a Diet committee on the alleged irregularities. In an attempt to quell the onslaught from the opposition, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada has met twice with Ozawa, though briefly, and urged him to agree to testify. Ozawa has steadfastly refused, however.

According to one Cabinet minister, Okada’s next move would be to persuade Kan to put Ozawa on notice to leave the party. This indeed could very well be one of the few alternative courses of action that Kan could resort to in order to regain his power and influence.

Another move that could help strengthen Kan’s position may come from Kaoru Yosano, a former chief Cabinet minister who deserted the LDP in April to form the Sunshine Party of Japan with Takeo Hiranuma, former minister of international trade and industry in an LDP government.

Yosano met with Kan on Nov. 18, with the stated purpose of discussing how to reduce fiscal deficits. With the meeting taking place at a time when Yanagida’s gaffe became a political issue, some political observers hinted that Kan was thinking of naming Yosano as Yanagida’s successor, which could eventually lead to the formation of a coalition between the DPJ and Yosano’s party.

This development has caused serious concerns for the People’s New Party, which is the junior partner in the current coalition government.

Shizuka Kamei, who heads this party, suspects that establishing a close tie with the Sunshine Party might prompt Kan to end the coalition with the People’s New Party. Although Sengoku and Hiroyuki Sonoda, secretary general of the Sunshine Party, have assured Kamei that such a thing would never happen, Kamei is not totally convinced.

The general consensus, though, is that Yosano is no longer capable of exercising major political influence, particularly now that a schism is said to have formed between him and Hiranuma.

One political analyst has gone so far as to say that the whole Japanese political arena is so sick that a cure cannot be hoped for with minor adjustments such as changing the DPJ’s coalition partner.

Late in November, Sonoda met with Yoshihisa Inoue, his counterpart of Komeito, which had formed a coalition with the LDP before they were trounced in the Lower House election last year. The two are said to have agreed that they would not rule out the possibility of Kan resorting to a desperation move of dissolving the Lower House and calling a general election.

Even though a large majority of politicians think that Kan’s days are numbered, nobody seems to be sure of what would follow his resignation — whether the two major parties of the DPJ and the LDP would form a “grand alliance” or whether there would be a big reorganization of political parties.

It seems certain that the lame-duck status of the Kan administration will continue for some time to come with the political vacuum lingering.

At his meeting with his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama on Nov. 27, Kan said he would remain in office even if his rate of approval plummets to 1 percent. This is proof that there is a big gap between his perceptions of the situation and the political reality, which in turn leads the nation deeper into political confusion.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic issues.