Japan’s seventh Prime Minister in five years

When watching Japanese politics from the outside, it seems as if the incumbent Prime Minister resigns every other day. Indeed, since September 2006 – five years ago – there have been seven Prime Ministers, of which only the outgoing one, Naoto Kan, lasted over one year. Since the resignation in September 2006 of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s last successful Prime Minister, Japanese politics have been marked by instability in the top job. There is perhaps a culture which compels leaders to resign when they are viewed as failures, and there are also factional wars in both major parties which often conspire in the backrooms to push the Prime Minister out the door.

The incumbent Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, in office since June 2010, never faced a general election and came to power with the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama, elected in the 2009 general election in which the ruling centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) defeated the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s natural governing party. Kan blundered right at the start by hiking the sales tax from 5% to 10%, which resulted in the DPJ’s poor showing in the 2010 upper house elections. In September 2010, Kan defeated his party rival Ichirō Ozawa in a leadership election. Ozawa, the DPJ leader between 2006 and 2009, is known as the DPJ’s “Shadow Shogun” for his traditional place in party intrigue, corruption and backroom politics. Ozawa took control of a demoralized and divided DPJ, trounced by Koizumi in the 2005 elections, and managed to rebuild it to a formidable alternative to the unpopular LDP by the 2007 upper house elections. However, Ozawa, a former LDP boss defeated in an LDP battle, wanted to build the DPJ into something of a new LDP for bitter LDP losers. That included pandering to the LDP’s clientelistic coalition, and inevitably turning the DPJ into an archaic corrupt shell rather than the reformist, pragmatic alternative it was supposed to be. Ozawa did not the DPJ into the August 2009 landslide election, because a corruption scandals months before in May had forced him out. However, he backed Yukio Hatoyama who defeated the reformist candidate, former leader Katsuya Okada. Ozawa thus became ‘shadow leader’ of the DPJ, the man pulling the strings for Hatoyama who soon proved how much of a tool he was. His incompetence forced him out in June 2010, where Kan, a reformist anti-Ozawa figure backed by the DPJ’s right-wing was elected. Ozawa, who had resigned around the same time as Hatoyama from his office of secretary general of the DPJ, challenged Kan for the leadership again in September (a regular party election: Kan had been elected to fill the remainder of Hatoyama’s term as DPJ president). Ozawa lost only 200 to 206 in the MP vote, but party members and local elected officials much preferred Kan, who was much more popular than Ozawa with voters.

Kan was hurt by the March tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, where his slow and tepid response to the crisis was much criticized. Japan’s economic situation and massive debt was also a major point of criticism, especially in recent days with Japan’s debt level downgraded by rating agencies. Similar to the debt ceiling fight in the United States, the battle over Japan’s economic situation (made worse by the ravaging tsunami in March) has been between increased taxes or spending cuts. The LDP wants the DPJ to drop some of its generous spending policies instead of having to borrow to finance the Japanese debt. Pressure mounted on Kan to resign and set a timetable for his resignation. His approval rating is below 20%, most of his party dislikes him, business despises him and the press attacks him. In June, he survived a leadership vote after Hatoyama and Ozawa’s faction backed down in exchange for a promise to resign soon. He finally did so last week, opening the gates to my favourite thing in party politics: leadership contests and factional wars.

The candidates were finance minister Yoshihiko Noda, trade and industry minister Banri Kaieda, former foreign minister and DPJ leader Seiji Maehara, agriculture minister Michihiko Kano and former transportation minister Sumio Mabuchi. Noda, on the party’s right, is nonetheless a prominent reformist. Noda is controversial for his constant insistence that Japanese class-A war criminals are not in fact war criminals, a view much criticized by South Korea – which Naoto Kan has cozied up to. Kaieda is close to Hatoyama and received the support of Ozawa, who despite being a crook and all that has one of the largest factions in the party with up to 130 MPs out of 398. Kaieda notably cried in Parliament under a barrage of criticism. Former foreign minister Seiji Maehara is also a reformist on the party’s right and a prominent pro-American ‘hawk’ (or neoconservative) within the party who was forced out in March after receiving bizarre illegal donations from a Korean living in Japan. Maehara is popular with voters and was believed to be the favourite. Not much is known about Kano or Mabuchi, but Mabuchi was apparently backed by some Kan opponent. Currently 398 DPJ Diet members were allowed to vote (there was no primary with members as this is a special election) and did so this morning.

Kaieda received 143 votes, Noda 102, Maehara 74, Kano 52 and Mabuchi 54. In the second ballot, the anti-Ozawa candidates, the most prominent of which were Maehara and Noda (perhaps linked by a secret deal), all united behind Noda. Noda won 213-177 against Kaieda. Ozawa lost a third successive battle to control the party, though his powerful faction will continue to influence the DPJ and a thorn in the side for the reformist leadership of Noda (and Maehara).

Noda has a major task ahead of him. Beyond rebuilding, he faces a tough economic situation and above all restore people’s trust in politicians. Kan’s downfall is emblematic of a popular disgust and disillusion with all politicians, DPJ or LDP. It is doubtful that Noda will be able to repair that long-lost connection of trust and confidence between voter and leader in Japan. His controversial comments on the war criminals raises eyebrows, but above all his support for higher taxes and a potential grand coalition with the LDP is quite controversial in Japan. It remains to be seen if he’ll even last a year, given the track record so far. The DPJ’s absolute majority in the House of Representatives is not due to renewed until the summer of 2013, which is a long way away and which might, if the trend holds, see the DPJ led by somebody else than Noda.

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Posted on August 30, 2011, in Japan, Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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