The last few weeks has been trying to say the least for anyone thinking about the Japanese political situation. Normally the Western press is pretty superficial in its coverage of Japanese politics preferring to focus on changing prime ministers, ministerial gaffes, and all other signs of political absurdity. However for once the tone seems justified.
In the last few days there are signs however that, in the short-term at least, there may be some cooperation that will lead to resolution of the Kan issue, and the enactment of the 2nd and 3rd pieces of legislation that Kan set as the 3 conditions for his resignation.
Since the no-confidence vote and the “threat” of a grand coalition rose to the surface, Komeito in particular has been making some vague noises about further cooperation, especially if it should lead to Kan’s removal. Overall the Komeito, unlike the LDP, is less strategically antagonistic to the DPJ, even if it on a personal level abhors a number of its members. New Komeito also wants to avoid an early Lower House election and wants to work with the DPJ if for no other reason than to negotiate when to call an election. According to media reports (en) the Soka Gakkai, Komeito’s biggest backer, wants to avoid a general election any time soon.
Thus we have New Komeito’s Secretary General Inoue Yoshihisa saying:
“It’s important for policy chiefs and secretaries general of the DPJ, LDP and New Komeito to hold discussions and come to a conclusion,”
And New Komeito leader Yamaguchi Natsuo saying:
“At present, the Diet should focus on rebuilding the disaster-hit areas and avoid using up its energy on when the prime minister will resign.”
Other factors motivating the New Komeito are that it is in favour overall of the renewable energy bill, something that they may not be able to pass should the LDP come storming back in a general election. This points to the fact that at this point in time the current political situation is not actually all that bad for New Komeito in terms of its overall political influence, as it may be able to play the two off against each other should a new, and more acceptable to its supporters, DPJ PM come to power.
Since the initial murmurings the LDP has also softened its stance and it looks likely that the bond-issuance legislation as well as the renewable energy legislation will pass. In order to get this the DPJ had to relent (en) on its child allowance policy and also had to promise to more or less rip the heart out of 3 other policies that were prominent parts of its manifesto – something that will have grave consequences for many potential DPJ candidates in any presidential election. The LDP is also concerned about looking like the sole remaining party pooper at an already very bad party should the Komeito take a softer approach. There are however even more pressing motivations for this DPJ-ward shift, as Michael Cucek says:
“Perhaps a little matter of a global financial market meltdown convinced the LDP and New Komeito that now was not the time to be playing hacky-sack with the national government’s funding mechanism.”
Indeed as much has been confirmed by LDP President Tanigaki, who intimated a fear (jp) that the LDP might be blamed for a further credit downgrade or further stock market losses, such as we have seen in Japan and worldwide in the last few days. The Mainichi in an editorial (jp) also strongly encouraged the LDP to support the bills in order to ensure economic stability and expedite Kan’s resignation, saying that the LDP had extracted sufficient concessions for the time being. It suggests that if the LDP continues to take a hard line against the DPJ then the public would see through their current strategy as one of only pretending to compromise while really pushing for the dissolution of the Lower House in order to get back into power.
Indeed. And for once Japanese politics is looking considerably more mature than US politics (had to be said, my friends).
While the conservative press has been obsessing over the idea that Kan will never willingly give up power, being the unelected dictator he clearly is, Kan has also over the last week softened his stance (jp), even telling Okada that an election for DPJ president could take place within the month if all goes smoothly with the conditional legislation. As of last night it seemed that in addition to the bond-issuance legislation which is now a certainty to pass (the second of Kan’s three conditions for resignation after the already passed budget bill), the prospects for the renewable energy legislation passing sometime this month has improved, which would fulfil the third condition for Kan’s resignation. In relation to negotiations between Komeito, LDP and the DPJ, Kan told the press that he planned to take responsibility on the basis of what he had already laid out, and resign (jp).
As always it is important to append all of the above – and all that follows- with a “caveat emptor,” but what might happen from here on in?
The two key questions are “who?” and “will it make a difference?”
Already Ozawa Sakahito and Mabuchi Sumio have definitely thrown their hats into the ring (en). Agriculture Minister and anti-TPP Kano Michihiko had previously suggested he would run and may be still considering. All three have tried to be pro-active and get out ahead of the media – mainly because their chances would be nil otherwise. But all three have their problems, ranging from unfortunate names to lack of experience, having been previously censured, to bad policy fit. Other potential candidates that have been mentioned in Japanese news media gossip, such as Okada, Kaieda, and Gemba, have been tainted with recent events, namely, being involved in government. It is likely they will not be seen as viable candidates by their party. Likewise it is hard to see Ozawa Ichiro supporter Haraguchi being given much attention other than by the media. Edano Yukio still rates reasonably well in public opinion (all things being relative of course) but he has hardly been mentioned as a possible candidate or has intimated his own ambition at this point in time to run for DPJ president. Like Mabuchi, he is seen as being too inexperienced although given the current situation one would have to wonder if experience is such a prized asset.
Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko would appear to be the candidate with the inside running at this point in time. However his strong stance on fiscal reconstruction, namely tax increases, could be a problem and may breath life into a candidate like Mabuchi who hopes to garner the votes of the younger and anti-tax rise DPJ members. Also, while he has been Finance Minister, and his name has been out in the open for a couple of months now as a possible candidate, he continually performs poorly in public opinion polls. At 54 he hardly fits the profile of the “next generation” leader that Kan and others have said should succeed him.
So how about the man who generally comes out tops in DPJ preferred PM polls and usually is up there with Ishiba Shigeru in overall preferred PM polls? That Maehara Seiji quit his foreign minister role only 5 months ago would in normal times rule him out of contention. Furthermore, Maehara’s DPJ and policy lineage is very similar to Noda’s, both being graduates of the elite Matsushita Institute (en), and both having negotiated about who would run in DPJ presidential races before. Would their respective support bases risk undermining their influence by having two candidates run campaigns against each other?
But there are reasons to justify speculation that Maehara will run. His support has remained relatively high despite his recent issue with political donations (en). He has been quietly working away behind the scenes in Japan’s political circles, untainted by post-tsunami politics, with some suggesting that he may have even been making arrangements with former foe Ozawa, who apparently wants “anyone but Kan.” He has sensibly stayed off the record in terms of putting forward definitive policy positions he can’t really take back. He has been burnishing his image by re-engaging with his major area of policy expertise, security issues, and has been working on gaining US support, which always plays well with the public in terms of legitimating a candidate. He even became the first former foreign minister to visit one of the Northern Territories which are disputed by Japan and Russia (en) and are under Russian control . For the last month he has been gradually increasing the volume of his calls for Kan to step down and a few days ago when asked if he would run, he only answered with that he was a “blank slate” (jp- “全くの白紙だ” lit. a perfectly white piece of paper).
I would not be surprised if in a tense run-off between Noda and a candidate like Mabuchi who gains the backing of the younger DPJ members Maehara emerges as some kind of consensus candidate. He has certainly positioned himself that way, and has the flexibility to mould his candidacy as he wishes unlike his opponents. However he may be keeping a low profile because he perceives that the next PM may also become nothing more than an opposition punching bag who will suffer the same fate as Hatoyama and Kan. Interestingly Mabuchi has been trying to goad Maehara into the race by saying that waiting until next years compulsory DPJ presidential election, as some have suggested he do as being inappropriate.
This leads to the “will it make a difference?” question.
The cautious and sensible answer, frankly given all of the evidence, is no. Recent opinion polls have suggested that the distraction and delay tactics are ultimately working for the opposition.
However, this is all taking place within the narrative of a inconsistent and inelegant Kan prime ministership. A prime ministership, much like Hatoyama Yukio’s, was high on drama and own goals, and low on leadership. The question is how will the delay tactics play-out within the narrative of a more consistent and less reactive leadership. An additional question is whether Komeito will maintain a softened stance after the new PM comes in and reconstruction proceeds. While the current global economic situation may have decisively pushed the parties to soften towards the DPJ, as I have pointed out there are other reasons to believe that Komeito might work with the DPJ to some degree when Kan leaves. After all, the LDP, not Komeito, is more likely to get the support of voters abandoning the DPJ. Those who would have ever considered voting for the Komeito have surely already gone sprinting back to the party, if they ever left.
In this sense Sengoku Yoshihito is performing a valuable role by continuing (jp) to raise the spectre of a “grand coalition” which could freeze the Komeito out of the legislative process. From a purely tactical point of view, Sengoku should continue doing this for as long as it works, as the idea gives the Komeito some pause. It also has the additional effect of strengthening the antagonism between the younger members of the LDP, who want an election now and thus favour an even harder line against the DPJ (so that more of their own kind will fill parliament and strengthen their hand within the LDP and in government), and the senior leadership of the LDP who want to return to power any way they can. Indeed more conflict between Ishiba and Ishihara has arisen in the last few days leading Ishihara Nobuteru to say that Ishiba “doesn’t get the political situation,” and for once Ishihara may be right (stopped clocks anyone?). Furthermore despite extracting considerable concessions from the DPJ there is still discontent (jp) within the LDP, with some members wanting the LDP to go even further and have the DPJ renege completely on its manifesto, and call an election.
Discontent in the LDP, or between the LDP and the Komeito, offers the DPJ some opportunities to exploit, which may make the post-Kan political situation more manageable. Whether they can do this relies on two things the DPJ has struggled to find since its coming to power last year: decisive and consistent leadership, and party discipline/unity. As potential candidate Kano himself has pointed out (jp), the LDP is also a shambles, and thus it becomes a battle of wills in terms of who can contain the political fissures the best.
The first two rounds have brought out the worst in both the DPJ and the LDP, harming both. Will round 3 enable the DPJ to paint a more positive narrative about itself in relation to the LDP? 1
1 A: I really don’t know.
NB: To clarify the Maehara visit, he was not there (jp) to rouse tensions but to encourage mutual economic cooperation etc for the inhabitants of the islands.
The PM has come out in no uncertain terms (jp) in the lower house and said he will quit once the three bills are passed.
Ishiba Shigeru has now softened his stance and said (jp) that if the DPJ put in someone competent there is no reason why the LDP can’t work with the DPJ “for the benefit of the nation.” Interestingly he said that “it is up for debate within the party whether we can work within the cabinet or outside the cabinet but if it is for the nation we must do what we must do.” A curious statement, particularly the first part. Is the LDP trying to one up New Komeito here in terms of friending the soon to be Kan-free DPJ?
And maybe Edano is thinking about a run for the DPJ presidency. In response (jp) to Minna no Tou’s Eguchi Katsuhiko question on the Senkaku Islands Edano was quoted as saying: If another country invades the Senkaku Islands (which we exercise effective control over) then we would exercise our right of self-defense and remove (the offending nation) at any cost. ( 我が国が有効に支配している尖閣諸島に対して他国が侵略してきたら、あらゆる犠牲を払ってでも自衛権を行使してこれを排除する) There was apparently an indication that the SDF would be used as part of this recovery mission. For many this might not seem like a particularly controversial statement but this is uncompromisingly tough language for a Japanese politician.