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Fluidity in Japanese Politics

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 07, 2010

    Bringing an end to his eight-month long turbulent tenure in office, the ninety third Prime Minister of Japan Yukio Hatoyama decided to step down on June 2. In his farewell speech, Hatoyama took full responsibility for his cabinet’s crumbling public approval rating and failure in relocating the Futenma base outside of Okinawa. Continued political funding scandals that dogged the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration for months were pointed out by him as another reason for leaving office. In the meantime, while offering regrets for his inability to fulfil his duty to support Hatoyama, DPJ General Secretary and party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa also opted to resign from his post. There have been reports that due to Ozawa’s recent embroilment in a political funding scandal, Hatoyama persuaded the former to quit as well so that the stain of political scandal could be eliminated from the party. A new DPJ leadership is expected to break what looks like party stagnation and regain the people’s trust.

    Although the departure of both Hatoyama and Ozawa sent ripples through the country’s turbulent political arena, it must have relieved a lot of DPJ Diet members who are to contest the upcoming Upper House election scheduled for July 11. It is worth noting that of late, Hatoyama was increasingly being seen as a liability by his own party members. Upper House DPJ members up for re-election became particularly vocal in calling for Hatoyama’s ouster as they believed that the party had no chance of doing well in the election with Hatoyama at the helm.

    Many political experts are now of the view that the departure of both Hatoyama and Ozawa might provide the DPJ with a much needed boost ahead of the election. A new leadership could also help the party regain some of the public support that had crumbled during Hatoyama’s terms in office. However, it remains to be seen whether Hatoyama’s successor would be able to prepare the party for the Upper House polls given the paucity of time.

    The series of broken promises and money scandals that marked Hatoyama’s premiership have undoubtedly brought about his downfall. Just after assuming office, Hatoyama, along with Ozawa, was hit by political funding scandals which adversely affected the public image of the party. In fact, the soaring public approval rate which was around 72 per cent at the time of DPJ’s historic landslide victory crumbled within eight months. The latest poll indicates that only 19.1 per cent of the public favoured the Hatoyama administration.

    Hatoyama’s failure to fulfil his pre-election promise to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma outside of Okinawa prefecture primarily brought about his downfall. Earlier, it was considered sheer immaturity on the part of Hatoyama to ineptly set an end-of-May 2010 deadline to resolve the long drawn relocation issue without having any concrete idea about how to go about it. What was all the more damaging was that while failing to live up to his earlier promise, Hatoyama decided to keep intact the 2006 Japan-US pact on the Futenma relocation and formally announced the relocation of the base within the same prefecture. This naturally disappointed Okinawans and voters nationwide. Hatoyama’s dismissal of consumer affairs minister and Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Mizuho Fukushima due to her opposition to the Futenma decision, which led to her party’s leaving the tripartite coalition government, did not help matters either. At present, there is a widespread allegation within Japan, particularly in Okinawa, that while drawing the recent agreement on the Futenma relocation issue, both Japan and the United States failed to take into account fundamental questions, making it all the more difficult to find a viable solution acceptable to all three parties concerned - Tokyo, Washington and Okinawa.

    During his farewell speech, Hatoyama admitted his failure to end Japan’s post-war security dependence on the United States. Although it was not achieved during his premiership, Hatoyama hoped that someday the Japanese people will be able to ensure their country’s security on their own.

    These are not the only instances of backpedalling by the Hatoyama administration. The party has already been compelled to retain a provisional gas tax that it had pledged to end during its electoral campaign. Earlier, the party also promised to make expressways toll-free. However, as the government is currently struggling to make ends meet with increasing debt, this promise too will probably go out of the window soon. It is not that the first eight months of DPJ-led government saw only failures. Introduction of policies like monthly allowance of 13,000 yen per child irrespective of the family’s income size, the measure to make public high schools tuition-free, etc. can be considered as achievements of the Hatoyama administration. But these achievements have been overshadowed by other policy failures.

    So far, there has been mixed reactions in Japan to Hatoyama’s abrupt decision to quit. While some are of the view that Hatoyama took the right decision, others opine that Ozawa was the bad apple (in the DPJ) who manipulated Hatoyama. Still others contend that nothing will probably change unless the party in power lets its younger lawmakers to have a say in policy making. It is quite interesting to note that some Japanese even hope to see young lawmakers of both DPJ and LDP join forces to form a new party of their own. Thus, at present, there exist divergent views among the Japanese people regarding Hatoyama’s resignation. However, as far as the DPJ’s fate in the upcoming July election is concerned, it seems that many Japanese still have faith in a DPJ-led government and they are willing to continue their support for the party in the near future.

    Hatoyama’s resignation, however, did not seem to elicit much reaction from Japan’s major ally, the United States. In a statement, the White House in fact failed to thank him or praise him. The statement simply held out the assurance that the bilateral alliance between the United States and Japan would ‘continue to strengthen’ regardless of who was in charge of Japan. US officials’ frustration with Hatoyama’s decision-making and lack of warmth in the Hatoyama-Obama relationship have apparently caused such an unsympathetic attitude towards the Japanese premier on the part of the US administration.

    Nevertheless, on June 4, the DPJ members of the Diet elected Deputy Prime Minister and finance minister, Naoto Kan as the new president of the party. Shortly after that, he was voted in as the next prime minister of Japan. No doubt, Kan has a challenging job ahead in dealing with an administration reeling from dwindling public support. Thus, quite naturally, regaining public trust would be the Kan administration’s first and foremost priority prior to the July election. While announcing that he would carry the torch passed on by Hatoyama, Kan emphasized on giving priority to the following tasks during his tenure: the promotion of regional autonomy, the establishment of a ‘new public service’ system, the formation of East Asia community and curbing global warming. He also hoped to restart DPJ’s Policy Research Council, which was abolished after the party came to power.

    Kan is to choose his top party officials after consulting with Shizuka Kamei, head of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), the DPJ’s sole remaining coalition partner. Interestingly, Kan has already hinted that he would not appoint outgoing General Secretary Ozawa to any key party or government position. It has been speculated that for the key posts Kan would probably choose those party colleagues who maintained their distance from Ozawa. If this is true, it would not only indicate a sharp marginalization of Ozawa’s influence in the party, but also attempt to bring forth a fresh image of the party instead of a mere ‘cosmetic change’ as alleged by the LDP leadership. Still, both Kan and his cabinet will be expected to make the utmost effort to have democratic discussion take root in the party so that effective policies can be developed in an open manner and with smooth cooperation between the cabinet and the party.