One of the enticing prospects of the auto-coup that saw scandal-dogged Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro replacing themselves with Naoto Kan and Edano Yukio was the possibility that DPJ policy could start reflecting Japan’s true position, rather than being a ragbag of collection of some seriously wonderful ideas alongside ludicrous aspirations and irresponsible promises made to every imaginable interest group.
The shine of the switchover to a more realistic politics wore off in what seemed an instant due to what turned out to have been a non-sequitur. The newly minted Prime Minister Kan, spooked as the whole world was to how close Greece came to default, tried to demonstrate the depth of his seriousness by suggesting Japan needed raise the consumption tax (in addition to several other fiscally contractionary measures) to return the country to the path toward fiscal balance, a path from which -- according to his former subordinates at the Ministry of Finance -- it had perilously strayed.
The public response to this proposal was swift and negative. Kan’s cabinet support ratings fell by a third. Support for the DPJ dropped also, though by a lesser proportion.
Part of the public response was a natural knee-jerk reaction against a tax rise. Greater possibly was a sense of betrayal, as a promise to not raise the consumption tax for at least four years had been a crucial part of the DPJ’s campaign literature.
However, a not insignificant amount of public opposition to Kan’s musings about raising the consumption tax came from the understanding that private consumption is highly sensitive to rises in this tax, and that an immediate rise in the consumption tax could lead to a catastrophic drop in consumer demand. Kan’s attempt to be responsible, to replace government borrowing with consumption tax revenues, was laudable, all other factors being equal. That all other factors are not equal, however, is something of which the Japanese public is painfully aware of after the country’s two decades of battles with slow growth and deflation.
The sudden deflation of confidence in the Kan government played a significant role the DPJ’s unexpected loss of ten seats and coalition control of the House of Councillors on July 11 -- though the huge losses suffered should more properly be attributed to the presence of the non-DPJ anti-LDP alternative Your Party candidates in a number of crucial districts and New Komeito vote trading with the Liberal Democratic Party in several others.
In response to the electoral loss, members of the DPJ most closely associated policy framework promoted by Hatoyama and Ozawa and tossed out by Kan and Edano, demanded the resignation of one of the policy makers closest to the Prime Minister --most vocally for Edano's resignation, as the secretary-general of the party perceived to be the person most directly responsible for the outcome of elections. Ozawa and Hatoyama loyalists also demanded a return to the policy line that existed prior to the takeover, a concerted effort to implement the entire 2009 DPJ Manifesto, compiled as it had been under Ozawa's tutelage.
Rather than take the usual route of sacrificing a close associate or his principles, Kan opted for a much harder route to redemption: abnegating himself.
Part of the choice of this approach was probably personal: on three occasions previously he has either stepped aside from a position of leadership or committed himself to acts of contrition and penance in response to what he saw as personal failures.
A larger part, however, is a simple admission of fact: the 2009 Manifesto was a document designed for winning a House of Representatives election in 2009, not for the running the country at any time. It is a core document of the DPJ’s, or more properly Ozawa Ichiro’s, road map to electoral victory. It cannot be cited as chapter and verse, as it was during the brief Hatoyama era, on how the country should be run.
In terms of policy, the 2009 Manifesto is the politics of unreality. There is not always a lot there there, and in some places there never was.
So during the final week of July and the first week of August Kan endured, in internal party meetings and in the Diet, complaints and abuse regarding his “mistake” of stating that Japan needs to get real. Rather than defiantly return fire, he was relentless humble, calling attention to his own mistakes and offering the hand of peace to opposition in the Diet, no matter how violently that hand was slapped in return.
The bravery (or foolishness) in choosing this path of self-abnegation becomes evident when one considers immanence of DPJ’s leadership contest, scheduled for September 14. Taking responsibility for everything that has gone wrong and not responding when challenged, either internally or externally, is hardly the route one chooses if one wishes to instill a sense of confidence in one’s leadership, and asks for a person’s vote.
Nevertheless, the path extreme self-abnegation seems to be beginning to pay off for Kan. He has kept his team together, despite pressure, minor though it may have been, from within the party to have a leadership shakeup. More stunningly, the public opinion polls are also showing the support numbers for his Cabinet stabilizing or indeed rising while the Do Not Support numbers weaken.
Polls from the end of the first week of August (figures from the previous poll in parentheses throughout).
Q: Do you support or not support the Cabinet?
Support the Cabinet 36% (36%)
Do not support the Cabinet 43% (46%)
Support the Cabinet 44% (38%)
Do not support the Cabinet 46% (52%)
Support the Cabinet 39% (36%)
Do not support the Cabinet 45% (52%)
Support the Cabinet 41% (39%)
Do not support the Cabinet 43% (45%)
In addition to the improving numbers of the Cabinet, the DPJ as a whole has seen a tiny rebound in its fortunes, with the Asahi, Kyodo and Yomiuri polls all finding stabilizing or rising support for the DPJ with concurrent and consistent declines in support for the main alternatives, the LDP and the Your Party (Minna no To).
Q: Which party do you support?
DPJ 31% (27%)
LDP 19% (21%)
Your Party 7% (9%)
DPJ 29% (28%)
LDP 21% (24%)
Your Party 8% (12%)
DPJ 32% (32%)
LDP 26% (28%)
Your Party 15% (16%)
Finally, even though non-party members do not have a vote in the DPJ’s leadership election, the public at large seesm to want Kan elected as leader of the DPJ in a formal party election, with him carrying on as prime minister. That there are voices calling on Kan to give up his leadership of the DPJ seems to be based not on issues of policy or personality but simply on the expectation that Kan, as the leader of a party that suffered an electoral defeat, should perform the traditional act of self-sacrifice and resign. What is interesting is how low the numbers are for this traditional act, considering the seriousness of setback the party suffered in the July elections.
Q: Would you like Prime Minister Kan continue as leader of the DPJ and as prime minister, or do you think he should not continue?
Should continue 56%
Should not continue 27%
Should continue 57%
Should not continue 30%
Q: In September the DPJ has a leadership election. Who would you want to be the leader of the DPJ?
Kan Naoto 37%
Maehara Seiji 15%
Okada Katsuya 8%
Ozawa Ichiro 5%
Haraguchi Kazuhiro 5%
Others >1% each
Do Not Know 23%
The strength of these numbers is likely what is behind Kan’s boldest and riskiest gambit to date: formally repudiating significant parts of the DPJ’s 2009 electoral manifesto. The English-language report of the plan mistakenly identifies the source of the movement as the DPJ as a whole, when indeed it is a throw of the dice by the PM and those around him. The article thus misunderstands the disowning of parts of the 2009 Manifesto as “backtracking” when it is really the champions of a politics of reality dumping in the trash the parts of the Manifesto that could not be made to fit inside the nation’s budget or its present international political situation.
While reaching back in time to rewrite the 2009 Manifesto makes sense in terms of policy, it of course asks serious questions about the validity of promises the party will make going forward. Party members close Ozawa Ichiro, who led the compilation of the Manifesto, could possibly rebel and threaten to leave the party. Opposition parties will be merciless in their accusations of betrayal of the public trust, and endless in their insistence that no one can ever trust anything the DPJ promises ever again.
A loss of credibility as regards the 2009 Manifesto is a gamble that Kan, Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito and others of their circle nevertheless seem willing to make. They are likely not sacrificing any sizable fraction of the electorate’s support. Even at the time of its promulgation, fewer than one voter in ten believed that DPJ would be able to convert all the 2009 Manifesto’s promises into concrete actions.
Disencumbering the party leadership and indeed the whole DPJ of the strictures of the 2009 Manifesto would leave the party open to three years (the terms of the House of Representatives and half the House of Councillors will both come to an end in mid-2013) of unfettered attempts to solve current and future problems of the country, rather than the passive fulfilment of promises to special interests. Certainly, transforming these policies proposals into law without a formal majority in the House of Councillors will be difficult. However, if public support numbers for the alternatives to the DPJ slide, as they have already begun to do, it is not outside the realm of the imagination to think that in a few months’s time a number of LDP and Your Party legislators will see wisdom in making common cause with the DPJ’s new realists on specific laws, or even to junking their affiliations with the parties of “No!” in favor of giving the DPJ either a working majority in the House of Councillors or a supermajority in the House of Representatives.
Of course, before any of the above can happen, Kan must survive the DPJ leadership election. A huge block of Diet members owe their seats to Ozawa Ichiro's electoral genius or were indeed personally recruited to join the party by him. They represent a huge hurdle over which Kan must leap if he is to remain party leader. Just how much realism Kan will have to jettison in order to win over enough party votes for him to come out on top on September 14 will be the question dominating Japanese politics over the next four weeks.