A question that has grown increasingly popular among politicians in Tokyo’s Nagata-cho is: How long is Naoto Kan going to survive as prime minister?
When former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso had dinner together Jan. 17, Abe reportedly said, “I think the Kan government will start jolting in March and collapse in June.” Aso is said to have agreed.
The conversation may sound like black humor as it comes from the men who bore heavy responsibility for ending the decades of nearly uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party and handing over the reins of government to the Democratic Party of Japan, now headed by Kan. Abe was prime minister when his LDP lost badly in the Upper House election in 2007 and Aso was in power in 2009 when his party suffered a resounding defeat to the DPJ.
The ordinary session of the Diet was convened on Jan. 24 in an awkward situation of the governing DPJ controlling a commanding majority in the Lower House, but the LDP and other opposition groups having a majority in the Upper House.
In an apparent bid to win a certain degree of cooperation from the opposition camp for the passage of important government-sponsored bills, Kan concluded his policy speech, delivered before both houses, by saying: “I end my policy speech by urging my honorable fellow members of the Diet to make this session truly deliberative Diet.”
The difficulties the Kan administration faces due to a divided Diet are not new because the same was true during the extraordinary session of last year. But the situation seems to have been exacerbated since Kan was forced to reshuffle his Cabinet late in January by bowing to pressure from the opposition parties, which had threatened to boycott all parliamentary deliberations unless he replaced two ministers against whom censure motions were passed in the Upper House in December. The concession to the opposition dealt a major blow to Kan especially because he was forced to remove then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, the key man in his Cabinet.
In the reshuffle, Kan named Kaoru Yosano as minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, only to draw bitter criticisms not only from the leading opposition LDP but from some members of his own DPJ. Yosano had held a number of high Cabinet posts under the LDP administrations until the LDP lost to the DPJ in September 2009. He defected from the LDP in April 2010 to form Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan) and declared himself to be a staunch opponent of Kan and the DPJ.
According to some observers, Kan hoped to have Yosano serve as a liaison with the opposition camp, principally the LDP, especially on matters related to reforming tax and social security systems. But the opposition groups appear to have no stomach for dealing with Yosano because of what they regard as his big “about-face.”
Besides, some of the policies advocated by Yosano are said to be totally incompatible with the DPJ’s basic stand.
The problems facing Kan are not limited in his Cabinet alone but are also rising within the DPJ, of which he is president. After removing Sengoku from the key Cabinet post, Kan named him acting president of the DPJ. This has led some insiders to speculate that he could be at loggerheads with the DPJ’s Secretary General Katsuya Okada, as they describe Okada as a “man of principle” while Sengoku is regarded as most flexible and pragmatic.
The two could make an excellent team to lead the DPJ if they cooperate with and complement each other, they say, but a feud between them could lead to a disaster.
Kan at present faces two difficult policy issues. One is his call for Japan to join other Pacific Rim countries for the conclusion of a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would be aimed at eliminating import duties on all commodities. This is strongly opposed by Japanese farmers, however, who fear that agriculture would be ruined if inexpensive agricultural products are allowed to enter into the country freely. The other is his pledge to come up by June with a fundamental policy on a consumption tax increase, primarily to cover the rising costs of social welfare.
While June is the deadline for him to present the consumption tax policy, there is the possibility that the Diet will still be unable to enact budget-related bills even after June 1. The current Diet session’s adjournment date is June 22. This presumably is why Yukio Edano, who succeeded Sengoku as Chief Cabinet Secretary, has speculated that a “political crisis” may come in June.
With everything seemingly going against the prime minister, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara is rumored to be seeking to succeed Kan as head of the DPJ and prime minister. Even though he denies such a rumor by saying that the right man to succeed Kan would be Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, observers point to signs of Maehara’s ambition to head the governing party. One such sign is his proposal that Japan should enter into direct negotiations with North Korea, based on a joint declaration issued in Pyongyang in 2002 by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the North’s strongman Kim Jong Il.
But the Foreign Ministry is negative about direct talks with North Korea, which would skip the six-party talks among Japan, North and South Koreas, China, the United States and Russia to denuclearize the North. Perhaps this difference in views prompted Maehara to transfer Akitaka Saiki, a high-ranking diplomat who formerly served as Japan’s top delegate to the six-party talks, to the post of ambassador to India.
It is conceivable for a schism to develop between Maehara, on the one hand, and Kan and his right-hand men, notably Sengoku, Okada and Edano, on the other. In his last-ditch effort to ride over the difficulties arising out of the lack of control over the Upper House, Kan is said to be seeking support from Komeito, which was a junior partner in the governing coalition led by the LDP until it was deposed in 2009.
But what if Komeito demands that Kan step down as prime minister?
Edano has reportedly confided to his close associates: “Mr. Kan will never step down from his post. If worse comes to worse, he will dissolve the Lower House and call a general election.” The curtain on massive political confusion is likely to rise.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic issues.