The mood was grim Sunday at The New Otani Hotel, the Democratic Party of Japan’s election base in Tokyo, as the reality set in that the ruling coalition had lost its majority in the Upper House.
In one of the hotel’s large halls, nearly 400 seats had been prepared for domestic and international reporters, and dozens of TV cameras were lined up by the back wall. But the gathering clearly lacked the excitement that surrounded the party’s historic general election win last summer, as gloomy DPJ executives took turns answering reporters’ questions.
“I believe there are many contributing factors” to the DPJ’s poor performance, said DPJ Deputy Secretary General Goshi Hosono, adding that Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s proposal to open debate on a potential consumption tax hike may have proved the most damaging.
While the recent resignations of Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister and Ichiro Ozawa as DPJ secretary general over money scandals boosted support for Kan’s quickly formed government, voter approval started slipping once Kan started talking about the sales tax.
“We were hoping that voters would base their judgment on issues we have been working on, such as cutting wasteful spending of tax money or social security issues,” Hosono said. “But Prime Minister Kan’s bold comments (on tax reform) made that difficult.”
While Kan had targeted at least 54 seats to secure a majority in the upper chamber with its coalition partner, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), the results were quick to doom that scenario.
Despite this, Kan reportedly said he would not step down as president of the DPJ and would remain prime minister.
Depending on how poorly the DPJ performs, however, Kan has been dealt a heavy blow and criticism is bound to swell against him within his own party.
Election strategist Jun Azumi was quick to brush aside talk of dissent, saying the prime minister would not be held responsible for the poll drubbing.
“The election came only 40 days after the new Cabinet was launched — I don’t believe Prime Minister Kan is responsible,” he said.
DPJ deputy leader Hajime Ishii said the party should concentrate on uniting and rebuilding itself rather than seeking scapegoats.
The veteran Upper House lawmaker said the poor results reflected the public’s dissatisfaction with the DPJ after 10 months in power, as well as the underlying strength of the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force.
“The public is seeking repentance from the DPJ” for not fixing the nation’s various troubles, Ishii said. “And the DPJ had difficulty competing against the LDP’s strong regional organizations and local representatives.”
A total of 437 candidates competed for the 121 seats in the election, with the ruling coalition seeking to hang onto its majority in the Upper House to avoid legislative gridlock.
The DPJ holds 62 seats in the House of Councilors that were not contested this time around, but it had to win at least 60 others for a single party majority.
However, lacking sufficient seats to secure control of the Upper House even with the support of Kokumin Shinto, the DPJ may need to seek new alliances to keep a majority.
DPJ executives were noncommittal on which parties the ruling camp might approach to strike a deal.
“We need to talk with our coalition partner, Kokumin Shinto, before” deciding on what to do, said DPJ Diet Affairs Chief Shinji Tarutoko.
Three of the four Cabinet ministers running in Sunday’s election won their seats.
The three, all from the Democratic Party of Japan, are Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Masayuki Naoshima, 64, who won his fourth term in the Upper House; government revitalization minister Renho, 42, who won her second term; and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, 72, who won his fourth term representing Nagano Prefecture.
Renho, a former TV announcer who goes by her first name only, won in Tokyo, the most fiercely contested district, where 24 candidates vied for five seats.
Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, also of the DPJ, failed to retain her Kanagawa Prefecture seat.