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13 July 2010

Will Japan can Kan?

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

By Tina Burrett

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.

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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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