Will Japan can Kan?

Just six weeks into the job, poor election results have put Japan’s prime minister at risk of losing

The shelf life of Japanese prime ministers is notoriously short. Yet, even by Japanese standards, the current prime minister, Naoto Kan, has reached his sell-by date quickly. Kan, who has been in office only six weeks, is fighting to stay out of the political trashcan after disappointing results for his Democratic Party of Japan in the upper-house parliamentary elections on 11 July.

Kan's troubles are just the latest episode in a series of tumultuous events that have rocked Japanese politics in the past year. Elections to the more powerful lower house of the Japanese parliament last August ended 55 years of almost unbroken rule by the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party.

In the 11 months since the DPJ replaced the LDP in office, Japan's new government has done little to justify voters renewing its mandate. At the start of June, after a series of gaffes and scandals, the DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, resigned in a pre-emptive attempt to head off disaster for his party in the coming election.

Receiving an initial bounce in the opinion polls, Hatoyama's successor, the plain-speaking Kan, brought forward upper-house elections, hoping to capitalise on his popularity.

Unlike most of his recent predecessors, Kan is not part of a political dynasty. Rather, he came up the hard way, honing his political sense and skills in grass-roots politics. As health minister in 1996, Kan achieved nationwide admiration for his candour in admitting government responsibility for the spread of HIV-tainted blood in the 1980s. His frankness and subsequent apology to victims earned him the respect of a public unused to openness from its political leaders.

Yet, in the recent election campaign, Kan's usually astute political sense deserted him. Rather than simply sitting back and enjoying his honeymoon with the Japanese electorate, he took the noble, but misguided, step of starting a national debate on raising consumption tax to tackle Japan's ¥800 trillion public debt.

While his predecessor Hatoyama was largely a victim of his own indecisiveness, Kan suffers from the opposite affliction. The proposal to raise consumption tax originally came from the LDP. To steal the initiative back from his opponents, Kan rashly made a tax hike the centre of his own campaign. But he announced the rise without explaining how, when or why it would come into effect. Voters, who are never happy about tax rises, even in the most pressing circumstances, felt confused and angry.

Gridlock

The DPJ was not the only party that failed to connect with voters at this month's election. Just one week to polling day, around a third of voters remained undecided.

Despite an impressive array of candidates, with several new micro-parties splintering from the LDP in the lead-up to the campaign, very few offered a convincing reason for voters to brave the summer humidity and go to the polls.

All the parties failed to define clearly what they had to offer. Manifestos, though heavy on promises, were light on specifics -- in particular on how to deal with Japan's enormous deficit.

The main beneficiary of the DPJ's difficulties was the LDP. Of the 121 seats being contested -- half the upper-house total -- the DPJ won 44, while the LDP took 51. Predictions made after the fall of the LDP government last year, that the 2010 election would see the party finally annihilated, were premature.

As a result, the DPJ and its partners lost control of the upper house. It had been obvious for some weeks that Kan was unlikely win the 54 seats necessary for his party to retain power.

The outcome for the party, however, was even worse than forecast. This will make it harder for the government to find a stable coalition partner. The most obvious contender, the left-leaning SDPJ, walked out of a coalition with the DPJ at the end of May over Hatoyama's reversal on relocating a US military base on Okinawa. The leader of another possible candidate for coalition, Your Party, which now has 11 seats, has ruled out a formal deal. But co-operation in some areas may be possible.

The Japanese media refer to the gridlock between the upper and lower houses as "the twisted Diet". As government politicians twist and turn to broker piecemeal deals on legislation, the big picture will take a backseat to petty politicking.

Japan needs decisive leadership to overcome political stalemate and economic stagnation. If this election showed anything, it proved that the country's current leaders lack a clear vision of where they want to go.

Dr Tina Burrett is assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Tokyo.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad