Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s abrupt resignation Sunday may have averted even more turmoil in the Diet, but his loss bodes ill for the Democratic Party of Japan because he was a leading candidate to succeed Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
The resignation, prompted by illegal donations from a foreign national, came as the Kan administration is struggling to pass budget-related bills through the Diet as an internal conflict rages between factions loyal to Kan and those loyal to Ichiro Ozawa, the kingpin facing trial for political funds misreporting.
Opposition forces, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile see Maehara’s exit as a great opportunity to push Kan into dissolving the Lower House for a snap election as they search for the perfect moment to submit a nonbinding censure motion against the prime minister in the opposition-controlled Upper House.
But political observer Minoru Morita said Maehara’s resignation may have the opposite effect, and reduce the possibility of a Lower House dissolution and election from happening anytime soon.
“If an election is held right now, most of the DPJ members will lose their seats,” Morita said. “It’ll be mass suicide.”
A more likely scenario will be for Kan to resign after the Golden Week holidays and following the nationwide local-level elections in April, he added.
“Everyone in the DPJ is waiting for Kan to give up the fight and step down,” he said.
That would mean yet another prime minister resigning after just a year or so in office — a source of embarrassment both at home and abroad. Tokyo has gone through five prime ministers since September 2006.
With Maehara, 48, out of the picture, at least for now, it’s anyone’s guess who the next prime minister will be.
Until now, the prospective candidates were a handful of staunch Kan supporters, including Maehara, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Koichiro Genba, state minister for national policy.
But DPJ members considered closer to Ozawa, including trade minister Banri Kaieda and farm minister Michihiko Kano, may emerge as candidates, Morita said.
The DPJ-Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) ruling bloc’s lack of a majority in the Upper House is a key reason behind the political instability.
“The ruling and opposition parties need to come up with a regulation to ensure political stability,” suggested Fusao Ushiro, professor of political science at Nagoya University.
Ushiro said opposition parties need to allow the ruling bloc to remain in power for the entire four years of lawmakers’ Lower House terms, instead of blocking Diet deliberations and demanding the chamber’s dissolution for an election.
The opposition camp had planned to submit a nonbinding censure motion in the Upper House that would inevitably be followed by a boycott of deliberations if Maehara refused to resign.
They used the same tactic on Yoshito Sengoku when he was chief Cabinet secretary and Sumio Mabuchi when he was transport minister, prompting Kan to oust them when he reshuffled the Cabinet in January.
“The same thing would happen if the LDP and New Komeito take power because they don’t have a majority in the Upper House,” Ushiro said.
During a news conference Sunday, Maehara said an overseas counterpart told him that he was the sixth foreign minister in Tokyo since the counterpart took office.
“We need to stabilize politics so prime ministers and foreign ministers are not replaced in short order,” Maehara said.
Critics say the revolving door government hurts Japan’s diplomacy and security.
Takashi Kawakami, a professor of securities issues at Takushoku University, said the resignation of Maehara, known for his pro-Washington stance, will damage ties with the United States and expose Japan more to hardline China and Russia.
“If Japan can’t deepen ties with the U.S., that means Japan’s deterrence will go down,” Kawakami said, predicting China will get more aggressive around the Senkaku Islands and Russia will strengthen its grip over the four islands it holds off Hokkaido.
Japan-U.S. ties have been shaky in the past year over the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, starting with the first DPJ prime minister, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. But ever since Kan replaced him last June and appointed Maehara, bilateral ties have been showing signs of steady recovery.
Kawakami, an expert on Japan-U.S. relations, said the shock of the resignation has spread throughout Washington, where officials considered Maehara the most likely candidate to succeed Kan. But with Maehara out of the picture, the future of relations has, once again, become unclear.
“Japan experts are very concerned with the current situation,” Kawakami said. “Like (former) Prime Minister Koizumi, Maehara stood firm on Japan-U.S. ties, with steady diplomacy and being true to his words.”
And Maehara’s resignation came just over a week before the Group of Eight foreign ministers’ meeting in France.
“The international community’s trust in Japan has crumbled to the point of it being lethal,” Kawakami said. “It is undeniable that Japan’s national power will deteriorate.”