At the beginning of this week, Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko was the presumptive top choice in the race to replace Kan Naoto as leader of the Democratic Party of Japan and thus the person who will become Japan's next prime minister. Nichiyo Toron, NHK's prime political debate show (airing at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings) had him on as the sole politician, answering the questions of three academics.
Now, at the end of the week, Noda's candidacy looks as fried as an egg on the hood of a black Toyota sedan in Kumagaya in August.
What has gone wrong for this, the presumptive crown prince？ Why has his candidacy gone into a swan dive, even before the race has formally begun?
1) He has talked about raising taxes, including the consumption tax.
As a general rule, one thing one does not do, no matter what political office one is running for, is talk about raising taxes. One could argue that by showing a willingness to talk about raising taxes, Noda is demonstrating his toughness and bravery – and that the people appreciate this bold and honest approach. Unfortunately, talk about raising taxes could also be the result of having spent too much time in the presence of Finance Ministry bureaucrats – a definite negative. Kan Naoto was Finance Minister for only a few weeks before becoming prime minister – and the finance ministry bureaucracy mesmerized him, with deleterious results for the DPJ in the 2010 House of Councillors election.
There is furthermore still a number of members of the DPJ who cling to the party's pledge to not raise the consumption tax – the tax that would be the most fair and efficient -- without holding an election. Seeing as how the party is suffering from a huge deficit in the public opinion polls as compared to its rival the Liberal Democratic Party, the chances that a sizable number of DPJ legislators would support a candidate singing the praises of a tax rise is negligible.
2) He has confirmed that he still is in basic agreement with a 2005 statement that the Class A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine are not actual war criminals.
No. No. No. You are trying to become prime minister, not the leader of a boy scout troop. You want to go overseas, visit nice places like Beijing, Seoul and Washington, where they take that kind of talk very seriously. If at one time you said in Diet questioning, "Those who are called Class A war criminals were not really war criminals" and you today are asked, "Do you still believe this?" you answer, "I was speaking hypothetically" or "I was speaking metaphorically" or "I wasn’t inhaling at the time" or "I swear to you, I thought he was a woman"…anything but "Basically, my way of thinking has not changed." (ja)
3) The Liberal Democratic Party has waved off any talk of a grand coalition.
Noda has stated that the only way to solve the current impasse in the Diet is for the next prime minister to go to the LDP, head bowed, and ask them to join the government. Noda has sold himself as the man who could make that request, indeed yesterday, he said he would be willing to make that request "one hundred and one times" (ja).
Unfortunately for Noda, leaders of the LDP on Wednesday came down hard against suggestions that their party would be entering into a grand coalition with the DPJ (en). The only glimmer of hope for a grand coalition came from LDP party president Tanigaki Sadakazu, who said, "We have to cooperate on the recovery from the disaster; however, one must keep in mind that a grand coalition would be an outlier among outliers."(ja)
Now Noda could have a back pocket deal with the New Komeito in the works, whereby the New Komeito junks its alliance with the LDP and joins the government or agrees to vote with the government, giving the new coalition the requisite number of votes for a majority in the House of Councillors and a supermajority in the House of Representatives. However, there have been no reports of Noda or his allies in talks with New Komeito representatives.
No grand coalition = no need for Noda.
4) Kaieda Banri is planning to run.
If there was anyone who would have less of a chance to be perceived as the leader of a country, it is Kaieda Banri. Beyond the fact that he leads the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, the ministry in charge of the safety of Japan's nuclear power plants – already a black eye – his name also cannot be mentioned without the television networks running the video of him breaking out in sobs during committee questioning in late July (photos and video).
Nevertheless, Kaieda, who can count on the support of the group of DPJ members loyal to former prime minister Hatoyama Yukio, is in the running (en).
If Kaieda can run, the field must be wide open, with the votes of the 150 or so strong group of legislators with close ties to former party leader Ozawa Ichiro in play.
5) Noda has lost Maehara Seiji's commitment to sit this election out
Noda and former foreign minister Maehara Seiji are both graduates of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. Though they are natural rivals, they have an understanding that when one makes a leadership move, the other will get out of the way and support him. At the beginning of this week, Noda had Maehara's tacit promise to not run in this leadership contest. Yesterday, however, Maehara met with 50 DPJ lawmakers of his group. Coming out of the meeting, he did not say, "I am not running and I give Noda my full support." Instead he said, "I am really torn. I would like to take a few days to think about this." (ja).
If Maehara runs, a lot of DPJ members will get off the fence and support him. He is telegenic, a hardliner on security issues (thereby blunting LDP criticism that the DPJ as a party is naïve on security matters) and is always at the top of the list when pollsters ask "What politician would you want to have as Japan's leader?" He also seems to have an ambivalent relationship with former party leaders Hatoyama and Ozawa, rather than the pure enmity that lie between those two men and the DPJ's current executive committee.
If Maehara is even taking a few days to think about whether to run or not, then one can pretty much declare Noda's candidacy in serious, serious trouble.
This is trebly so because the job of taking over from Kan Naoto is a such crappy one. The LDP and the New Komeito are going to be as obstructive as possible – as is indicated by their current mostly feigned outrage (ja) at a DPJ internal flier that states that the kodomo teate is not dead (See my discussion of the kodomo teate vs. jido teate semantic debate here). The job guarantee, if anyone can survive the mind-bending pressures of a divided Diet, is for only a year, as the DPJ has its regularly scheduled leadership contest in September next year. Ozawa Ichiro will still be in the party, muddying the waters; indeed, there has been a suggestion from Koshiishi Azuma, the leader of the DPJ in the House of Councillors, that Ozawa have his party rights restored (ja) – a step forward for the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty but a step back for the principle that the duty of a party member is to serve the party.
As it stands, no sane person would want to be responsible for a) getting the members of the DPJ moving in one direction, which is akin to herding cats, b) trying to sweet talk the LDP and/or the New Komeito into voting for every single piece of legislation sent to the House of Councillors (with the exception of the national budget and supplementary budgets), c) leading the reconstruction and revitalization of the devastated areas of the Tohoku, d) managing the cleanup from the Fukushima nuclear power station disaster and e) finding solutions to Japan's myriad other problems, most of them chronic, which have been sitting simmering on the back burner in the five months since the March 11 catastrophe.
Nevertheless, if one includes Maehara, there are at least seven candidates in the race to replace Kan as PM.