Prime Minister Naoto Kan will likely have to decide whether to call a general election or to resign as early as next month as his popularity continues to plummet.

Sixteen Lower House members of his Democratic Party of Japan have openly revolted against him; he has so far failed to win cooperation from part of the opposition forces to get important budget-related bills through the Diet; and his ally, Seiji Maehara, has stepped down as foreign minister for receiving contributions from an illegal source.

Shizuka Kamei, head of the People’s New Party, the junior partner in Kan’s coalition government, has gone so far as to predict that Kan is incapable of dissolving the Lower House and calling a general election because he has become “immobilized.” If Kamei is right, the final countdown for Kan’s resignation may start as early as next month.

On Feb. 17, the 16 DPJ Lower House members jointly announced that they were defecting from the parliamentary group consisting of the DPJ and independents. Yet, they said they were not deserting the DPJ itself. They were all elected in the the August 2009 Lower House election for the first time, with the support of Ichiro Ozawa, Kan’s archrival within the DPJ, and through the proportional representation system.

Observers see their move as one of desperation, as they are fully aware of the tiny chance of retaining their seats in the next general election. Still, the fact that Ozawa’s followers openly revolted against the Kan leadership is of political significance, they say.

As if to add insult to injury, the latest opinion polls taken by major newspapers and press agencies have shown that the Kan administration’s approval ratings have slipped to 20 percent and lower.

Another headache for the prime minister is how to secure enough votes to pass major pieces of legislation, especially bills related to the fiscal 2011 budget, through the Diet, where the governing DPJ has a commanding majority in the Lower House but not in the Upper House. With the defection of the 16 lawmakers, it has now become all but impossible for the DPJ to secure the Lower House two-thirds majority needed to pass bills voted down by the Upper House.

As another alternative, the DPJ leadership sounded out the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito for cooperation in passing such bills by offering some amendments to satisfy their demands. A flat “no” was the answer from both parties, which had formed a coalition government before the DPJ came to power in September 2009.

As if they sense that Kan’s days are numbered, several prominent figures within the DPJ have already started making moves to succeed him, including Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, DPJ acting chief Yoshito Sengoku, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

Maehara is out of the race, for the time being, after his resignation over political contributions from a non-Japanese citizen (a Korean resident in Kyoto) in violation of the Political Funds Law.

Maehara, who clashed head-on with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at their meeting in Moscow in February over the long-standing territorial dispute involving four islands north of Hokkaido, has been keen on contacting opposition LDP leaders on diplomatic issues. Although Sengoku behaved as though he was distancing himself from Maehara, there had been speculation that Sengoku’s ulterior aim was to lead the DPJ as secretary general, conceding the party presidency and prime ministership to Maehara. That dream has evaporated.

Finance Minister Noda is a “favorite son” among bureaucrats of the Finance and other ministries, but his apparent weakness is the lack of charisma to attract a large number of supporters. Attention also must be paid to moves by national strategy minister Koichiro Genba.

One person who must not be overlooked in the race to succeed Kan is ex-DPJ Secretary General Ozawa, who was indicted in January on allegations of falsifying political funds reports. The DPJ subsequently deprived him of all rights and privileges as a party member pending the final verdict in court.

Although Ozawa does not appear to have much room for political maneuvers until the court ruling, he recently started to make some waves. On Feb. 8, he met with Takashi Kawamura, who only two days earlier had been re-elected mayor of Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan, on a platform of reducing local taxes and reducing the number of seats in the municipal assembly.

While some observers see the meeting as a “farce” initiated by Ozawa out of desperation, others interpret it as an attempt by both to inaugurate a new political party, as Kawamura and his followers have organized a new regional group called Genzei Nippon (Tax Reduction Japan). This and other local groups could be a boon for local elections in April. The development may open the way for Ozawa to lead his “children” as head of an entirely new political party.

As Ozawa fights for a comeback, Kenko Matsuki, one of Ozawa’s close aides, on Feb. 24 resigned as the parliamentary secretary of the farm ministry in protest against the disciplinary action the DPJ leadership took against Ozawa. This was a blow to Kan as he struggles to remain at the helm of the ruling party and the government.

Kan’s near-term choice has been narrowed down to either dissolving the Lower House or simply stepping down. At present, he rules out any possibility of giving up the premiership. But if Kamei of the People’s New Party is right in predicting that Kan won’t be in position to call a general election, the final countdown for his resignation could start as early as April when the nation goes to the polls to elect local officials.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics, with some revisions.

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