Ending a turbulent eight months in office, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Wednesday he will step down to take the blame for his Cabinet’s plunging approval rate, brought on by funds scandals and the row over relocating a U.S. base in Okinawa.
Hatoyama also said Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, embroiled in a shady transfer of political funds, will step down from the party’s No. 2 post.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Naoto Kan, who is considered the top candidate to succeed Hatoyama, met with him later in the day and told him he plans to run for the DPJ presidency and thus the prime ministership.
DPJ members from both chambers of the Diet are scheduled to choose the party’s new leader at a meeting that will start at 11 a.m. Friday. That new chief will be elected prime minister at the Diet, where the party holds a strong majority in the Lower House.
“I apologize for the amount of confusion caused,” Hatoyama told a general meeting of DPJ lawmakers held at the Diet. “I thank you all for letting me lead (the administration) for the duration of eight months. I hope you will be able to create a new DPJ and a new government,” he said.
On Wednesday, Ozawa reportedly said the new Cabinet will probably be formed Monday and he “regrets” he couldn’t fulfill his duty to support Hatoyama.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and land minister Seiji Maehara are among the DPJ members considered potential candidates for the party presidency and prime ministership.
But on Wednesday, Maehara only said he has “made no decision,” while Okada said he had nothing to say before examining the situation with other party members.
Despite the slide in the opinion polls to less than 20 percent, Hatoyama was widely expected to remain in his post with only two weeks left in the ongoing Diet session and about a month until a crucial Upper House election.
But during the surprising farewell speech Wednesday, Hatoyama pointed to two blunders that continued to cloud his administration.
“First is the issue over Futenma’s relocation,” Hatoyama said, apologizing for his unsuccessful bid to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa despite months of searching for an alternative site.
Hatoyama’s decision to keep the base in Okinawa resulted in the departure of the Social Democratic Party from the ruling coalition, after SDP chief Mizuho Fukushima was sacked as consumer affairs minister for refusing to sign the Cabinet resolution on the base deal.
The prime minister reiterated the importance of keeping Futenma in Okinawa for regional security, but said he hoped Japan “will be able to provide protection for itself” in the future and free Okinawa from the burden of hosting the bases.
Hatoyama also pointed to the continued political funds scandals that dogged his party as a reason for leaving office.
“I never imagined myself” being embroiled in such a scandal, he said, touching on the unregistered donations from his mother to his political funds management body that led to the indictment of his former secretaries.
Ozawa’s case, involving irregularities related to the purchase of a plot of Tokyo land in 2004, also resulted in his aides being indicted. Ozawa quit the DPJ presidency last spring over a separate funds scandal.
In addition to Ozawa resigning his post, Hatoyama urged DPJ Lower House member Chiyomi Kobayashi, also involved in a scandal involving illegal donations, to step down as a lawmaker.
While Hatoyama in his speech highlighted the new child allowance and tuition-free high schools as his Cabinet’s achievements, DPJ members were quick to move on and look toward the party’s future.
DPJ Lower House member Hajime Ishii signaled that Kan is a strong contender to succeed Hatoyama, saying his party doesn’t “have much time” to look around. “There is no question that he is a candidate, since we need to make a quick decision,” the veteran lawmaker said.
But Ishii, who also serves as the DPJ’s election campaign chief, expressed concern over how Hatoyama’s resignation will affect July’s Upper House election. “I’ve always said that changing the cover of a book doesn’t have much effect” on voters, he said.
Maehara, known to have distanced himself from Ozawa, said the two DPJ chiefs probably made “a painful decision,” but one that demonstrates the “clean politics” the party has sought.
Maehara did not clarify whether he will run for the DPJ presidency, but he revealed he exchanged opinions regarding the party’s future with administrative reform minister Yukio Edano and national strategy minister Yoshito Sengoku, who are both vocal critics of Ozawa.
DPJ Upper House member Koji Matsui, who serves as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, said the time is now right for his party to “regain what it once had, change from within and reform itself.”
Meanwhile, other DPJ members were left in shock about Wednesday’s abrupt announcement by Hatoyama.
“I saw the breaking news alert on television, but it could be a false report,” one DPJ lawmaker said heading into the general meeting of party members. “But a plenary session of the Upper House was canceled, which is a sign that there will be a big announcement.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Hatoyama’s decision was “extremely regrettable,” but added that the government will remain composed and fulfill its duties until a successor administration is installed.
Hirano, who served as a key figure in negotiating the relocation of the Futenma base, said he “felt a sense of responsibility” over Hatoyama’s exit.
Opposition parties meanwhile were swift to criticize Hatoyama’s move.
“The resignation of the prime minister is merely like changing the costumes in order to trick the public,” Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Tadamori Oshima told reporters.
Information from Kyodo added.