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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.