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Kan Naoto’s Uncertain Political Future

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 07, 2011

    Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto is walking a tight rope as his popularity has plunged to 20 per cent and demands, are growing for his resignation from both inside and outside the government. Normally it is unusual for any Prime Minister to remain in office when the level of support plunges to such a low level. According to a recent survey conducted by Asahi Shimbun, the drop in his approval rating to 20 per cent from 26 per cent in January 2011 was such a serious issue that his continuance in office may not be sustainable for long. Kan’s popularity had plunged to 21 per cent in December 2010 but rebounded to 26 per cent in January 2011 following a reshuffle of his Cabinet. When Kan’s Cabinet was formed in September 2010, following his election as the President of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the approval rating was nearly 67 per cent. In a dramatic turnaround, the disapproval rating of the same Cabinet grew to 62 per cent in early March 2011.

    Kan can take solace from the fact that he has stayed in office for 267 days as of March 1, 2011 surpassing the duration in office of his predecessor, Hatoyama Yukio, who presided over a divided Diet and a fractious party. Kan became Prime Minister on 8 June 2010 after fellow DPJ member Hatoyama resigned over his inability to resolve the Futenma base issue in Okinawa. Initially, Kan adopted a confrontational approach against rival Ozawa Ichiro, the former DPJ President whose reputation was considerably dented following a string of political funds scandals. Kan’s stand helped buoy his administration’s support base. However, Kan appears to have overstepped his limits when he suspended Ozawa’s party privileges even before a fair trial, overriding objections within the DPJ.

    The Kan-Ozawa feud snowballed into a major party crisis and did not go down well with the voters. As a result the survey revealed that fifty-two per cent of the respondents stated that disciplinary measures were “appropriate”, while 28 per cent replied that the measures were “too light” and 9 per cent stated that they were “too harsh”. However, as many as 72 per cent of the respondents rejected Ozawa’s argument that he should not have resigned from the Lower House or the DPJ because his indictment in January 2011 came as a result of a decision by a prosecution inquest panel consisting of citizens and not prosecutors. Only 17 per cent agreed with Ozawa’s opinion.

    The current political mood in Japan suggests that the chances of Kan’s survival appear grim. His predecessor Hatoyama stepped down as Prime Minister in June 2010 when the approval rating of his Cabinet plunged to 17 per cent in May 2010. However, despite Kan’s dwindling approval ratings and public support, his party is unlikely to dump him soon. If past experience is any guide, Kan may stay on for some time, though he may be walking a tight rope. The latest survey showed that 60 per cent of DPJ supporters want Kan to stay on.

    The Opposition parties are demanding that Kan dissolve the Lower House and call for a snap election. Even on this issue, Kan enjoys public support given that 49 per cent of those asked say that he need not rush to leave office as against 39 per cent who say he should quit office at the earliest possible date.

    Prime Minister Kan is likely to get a breather as the Opposition parties are divided on how to expel him from office. Though the LDP is keen to put pressure on the Kan administration, it is unlikely to get the full backing of its former coalition partner New Komeito. The LDP’s strategy may be two-fold: to bring in a no-confidence motion against the Kan Cabinet in the Lower House and/or introduce a censure motion against Kan in the Upper House. If a motion in the Lower House were to be passed, Kan will be left with no choice but to dissolve the Cabinet. However, since the DPJ holds a majority in the ruling coalition in the Lower House, a no-confidence motion in the House is unlikely to be passed. The alternative of a censure motion, in the Upper House, could be passed as the Opposition holds a majority there. However, this would have no binding power over the government. The LDP and the Opposition may use this excuse to justify their non-participation in the Diet and seek Kan’s ouster from office. In such a case, Kan would have the choice between resigning and dissolving the Lower House for a snap election.

    Kan may have succeeded in passing the 2011 budget in the Lower House but the LDP in alliance with other small opposition parties can block critical budget-related legislation in the Upper House. The role of New Komeito is critical as without its cooperation, the LDP strategy to topple the Kan government is unlikely to succeed. New Komeito is unlikely to go along with the LDP on the censure motion as its present focus is directed towards the unified local elections scheduled in April 2011. If the LDP wants to secure the support of the New Komeito, it would have to wait till the unified local elections are over before bringing in the censure motion.

    In such a situation DPJ could gain New Komeito’s support by revising the child allowance programme. New Komeito supporters had raised concerns when the DPJ was thinking of suspending the child allowance programme. In the meantime, the DPJ is also working hard to unite its party members. Despite the much-hyped feud between Kan, Ozawa and Kenko Matsuki, the agriculture parliamentary secretary, who resigned in the last week of February 2011, both Ozawa and Matsuki voted for the budget in the Lower House. This gave an opportunity for Kan to discipline the sixteen DPJ members of the Lower House who abstained from the vote. While Koichiro Watanabe, the leader of the 16 dissidents within the DPJ, had his party privileges suspended for six months, the other fifteen received a warning from the party’s Standing Officers Council.

    The biggest challenge for the Kan government has been job creation as the unemployment rate continues to remain high at 4.9 per cent. While the jobless rate for men dropped to 5.3 per cent in January 2011 from 5.4 per cent in December 2011, the rate for women slid to 4.2 per cent from 4.3 per cent, the second consecutive month of decline. The Opposition is critical of the government’s inability to address this issue.

    Some sections of the people are also frustrated over the government’s inability to resolve territorial disputes and are angry at China’s and Russia’s hard-line stances following recent incidents. Japan’s relations with South Korea are also experiencing some strain over the Takeshima island issue. Prime Minister Kan faces some tricky issues and unless early solutions are found, his stay in office is likely to be cut short.