Key task for his successor said to get opposition on board and end Diet deadlock

Nagata-cho abuzz as Kan exit nears


Staff Writer

After months of mounting calls to step down from the opposition camp and even some fellow members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, it looks like Prime Minister Naoto Kan is finally ready to bow out.

And once again, the political hub of Nagata-cho has begun to buzz over who will be the next leader. Critics agree the most crucial job for the next DPJ president, who would become prime minister, is to stabilize the political situation amid a divided Diet and form ties with the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition force.

“The next leader at the very least needs to be able to get in step with the LDP over policies, including tax reforms and reconstruction measures,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University. “Without the LDP’s understanding, the new leader would run into deadlock . . . and then replacing (Kan) would become pointless.”

Although no date has been set yet, Kan is expected to officially announce his resignation as soon as the bond-issuance bill and legislation to promote renewable energy clears the Diet toward the end of this month. And the DPJ presidential election is likely to immediately follow.

“Once the second extra budget and two bills are approved, the DPJ will begin procedures to choose a new party leader and I will resign as prime minister,” Kan told an Upper House Budget Committee meeting Thursday.

Key lawmakers of both parties, including DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada and LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki, have expressed the need for cooperation between the two parties. Tanigaki stressed during a news conference Thursday that he would be willing to work with the DPJ to rebuild Japan from the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

“The country is in a state of crisis and I believe that we must leave all options open and not rule anything out,” he told reporters. “It is natural for us to cooperate in the restoration and reconstruction of the disaster area, but I never said we would cooperate in other areas as well.”

No one has officially declared their candidacy, but various names have already surfaced, including Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, farm minister Michihiko Kano, former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, former Environment Minister Sakihito Ozawa and former Diet affairs chief Shinji Tarutoko.

Of the likely candidates, only Noda so far has firmly stated the need for a tax hike. The LDP has also indicated an increase in income and corporate tax are necessary to rebuild Japan after the disaster.

Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami said that if the new leader opposes a tax hike, the LDP would not cooperate and the political deadlock would continue.

“I think that the DPJ and the LDP should cooperate and raise the consumption tax, paving way for financial reconstruction,” Kawakami said. “Otherwise, the divided Diet will not change, confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties will continue and the political stagnation will be repeated.”

Since the March 11 disaster, Kan has focused on rebuilding the disaster area and bringing the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant under control. Previously an advocate of increasing the use of nuclear power to 53 percent from the current 30 percent of the nation’s total electricity supply, he has done an about-face and wants Japan to curb its reliance on atomic energy.

A recent Kyodo News survey showed that 70 percent of the public wanted Kan to quit, but the same number supported his antinuclear stance.

But Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama, explained that Kan was a former activist and is still burning with “a sense of mission.”

“I don’t think he understands why he has to quit, because he thinks he is working hard,” Narita said. “He is the first civil activist-turned-prime minister . . . and has a strong sense that he is fighting for justice.”

But critics agree that one of Kan’s biggest faults was that he had no specific goal — he was pursuing policies off the top of his head. Kan had spent years as an opposition lawmaker trying to come up with ways to change the LDP-led political world but not how to wield power, Narita explained.

“That’s why he would jump onto ideas from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to reform of social security and the tax system to antinuke policy and everything ends up being half-finished,” said Narita, who was also a former secretary in the early 1990s to then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, the leader of the first non-LDP coalition.

In June, Kan barely survived an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion that, until the morning of the vote, a large group of fellow DPJ lawmakers backing former party President Ichiro Ozawa looked likely to support and bring Kan down. The prime minister has taken an “anti-Ozawa” path, triggering harsh resentment among those loyal to the party’s “shadow shogun”.

To stop the party from completely falling apart, Kan said he would “hand over his duties” once full-scale rebuilding started in the Tohoku region and the Fukushima nuclear crisis was nearer a resolution, but didn’t specify the timing of his exit. And in the end, it took more than two months for Kan to actually say he would resign.

“It is definitely abnormal that (politicians) are trying to drag down the prime minister at such a critical time after the disaster,” Narita said. “Fundamentally, it is about the DPJ’s internal conflict.”