Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Push

Monday marked opening day of what promises to be a week of intense activity by the politico-media-entertainment complex in support of a theatrical ouster of Prime Minister Kan Naoto. I say theatrical as the no-confidence motion is neither desired by the public nor based upon any real need for an ouster. It is also unlikely to succeed.

The Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito have been threatening the Cabinet with a no-confidence motion for several weeks. During those weeks, they have tried to manufacture a reason for the toppling of the Kan government, with little success.

At first, the LDP honed in on the prime minister’s helicopter overflight of the nuclear complex on the second day of the disaster. According to the LDP’s claims, the overflight delayed crucial venting of gases from the reactors which could have prevented the hydrogen explosions that blasted apart two of the reactor buildings. That claim lost much of its value when it could not be reconciled with time what actually happened at the plants, with the No. 1 reactor in complete meltdown 16 hours after the earthquake and the release valves on the other reactor unwilling to stay open for the venting to take place.

The LDP then turned to accusing the prime minister of ordering the halting the injection of seawater into the reactor for 55 minutes on the first day in response to an opaque comment by his reactor safety advisor that the possibility of a chain reaction occurring following the injection of seawater “is not zero.” Hours and hours of Diet time were wasted on whether or not a stop was ordered, by whom it had been issued, and what indeed “is not zero” means (in a humorous exchange, the advisor complained, "what 'is not zero' means is that it is zero!").

In the end it turned that the whole exercise had been in vain, as the power plant manager had, in defiance of a direct order from his superiors to halt the injection of seawater, kept the injection going, thinking that preventing a meltdown was more important than trying to save the innards of the plant.

Unable to pinpoint a direct cause for removing Prime Minister Kan from power, the LDP and the New Komeito have nevertheless gone forward with their plans to submit a motion. First because they are a bit drunk on the media attention being lavished upon them for having the audacity (the sheer, bloody-mindedness?) of launching their attack on the Cabinet in the midst of Japan’s worst crisis in the postwar era. Second, because the news media, tired of presenting the everyday life struggles of common folk in the wake of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and complete loss of four nuclear power plants (oh, the terror, poignancy and tragedy just gets so repetitive after a while…and it so upsets the advertisers…) is a willing co-participant in the generation of the news.

Monday’s front pages are a case in point. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan’s supposedly sober business newspaper, had as its front page headline, “It Has Risen to 74%, Those Do Not Value [the Actions of the Government]” and then in small print “The Response to the Nuclear Accident.” The Yomiuri Shimbun, not to be outdone, printed as its lead story, with a huge scary headline, “The Decision to Raise the Consumption Tax to 10% Could Come As Early as Next Month” with the subtitle, “The Prime Minister and Ruling Party Leadership Core Member Group Will Weigh The Options.”

That the 74% figure in the Nikkei poll was by far the worst figure for the government from a set of questions in a survey that found support for the Cabinet had risen and the number of those opposed to the Cabinet had fallen 5 points should be a source of shame for the paper’s editors.

No similar hope of shame can be expected from the Yomiuri, which is pathologically opposed to the present government and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. It was up to The Asahi Shimbun to print as its lead story in this morning’s paper what amounts to a correction of the Yomiuri’s lead story on Monday, namely that what the prime minister and the core leadership of the DPJ will decide upon at the end of next month will be a plan for a gradual phase in of an increase in the consumption tax over several years – a rise that everyone knows has to happen in order to pay for Japan’s burgeoning social welfare and retirement costs – that will begin at the earliest in April of 2012 and will top out at at 10%, possibly as soon as Fiscal Year 2015.

The deceptive behavior continues on the inner pages. Today’s Sankei Shimbun has an article on page 2 entitled, “The Kan Cabinet: ‘at the limit’ of its powers,” (in J. – Kan naikaku: rikiryo ni ‘genkai’”) directly beneath a graph with the following data on the Cabinet’s approval rating.

November 21.6%
December 23.6%
January 28.3%
February (2nd week) 20.7%
February (4th week) 18.7%
April 21.8%
May 29.2%

November 59.8%
December 59.6%
January 53.5%
February (2nd week) 62.9%
February (4th week) 67.7%
April 62.7%
May 58.3%

If by “at the limit” the Sankei means “at the upper bound of its popularity,” the Sankei may be right. Having around 30% of the populace pleased with the government is probably about all that a modern Japanese cabinet can hope for, especially when that cabinet is led by a prime minister with as obvious contempt for flashy media showmanship as Kan Naoto has.

If, however, the paper wants us to believe that the Cabinet has run out its string, then the assertion is not held up by the data. Support for the Cabinet has been rising through the crisis, and is above where it was last November. There is no trend toward weakness; in fact, the trend is running in the opposite direction.

All is not well for the prime minister, of course. He is not an extremely popular figure, largely because unlike Koizumi Jun’ichiro – the last prime minister to participate in two G8 summits – he does not play to the gallery. A fifth of the public (in the Nikkei poll 21%; in the Sankei poll 19.3%) wants him to resign right now. However, when 30% to 35% of respondents identify themselves supporters of the LDP, having around 20% of the people wishing your immediate ouster seems far less impressive.

A large plurality of the populace – 49% in the Nikkei poll, 46.3% in the Sankei – want Kan to continue in office until the reconstruction efforts in the Tohoku region and the cold shutdown of the damaged Daiichi reactors have reached a certain level of stability and progress (in J. ichi danraku). Given the severity and size of both of these projects, this will be quite a span of time. What the public therefore seems to be saying is that it wants Kan in place until the country has caught its breath and can start indulging such pitifully shallow matters as replacing a prime minister because he is not a Koizumi clone.

So why are the news reporters running around, following LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu, LDP Diet Affairs Chairman Aizawa Ichiro, New Komeito Chief Representative Yamaguchi Natsuo, former DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro, former prime minister Hatoyama Yukio and Tanaka Makiko, recording their every utterance or, when that is not possible (as is often the case with Ozawa Ichiro) reporting their purported utterances?

For the former trio, it is because the no confidence motion is the tiger from whose back they cannot descend. They have talked themselves silly and into a corner – they have to go through with the no confidence motion no matter what.

For the latter three, the threat of a no confidence motion provides an opportunity for a little brinkmanship with the current leadership of the DPJ, a chance for extorting some concessions, particularly in the matters of fiscal expansion and increased subsidies to target constituencies. The present DPJ leadership has tried to renege on the least popular or most profligate of the many generous promises the party made when it was under the control of Ozawa and Hatoyama. By issuing cryptic threats such as “at the time of decision we will decide” (in J. – ketsudan suru toki wa ketsudan suru”), Ozawa and Hatoyama seem to be trying to force the present party leadership to be nicer to them and to listen to their counsels – especially since the contractionary and fiscally cautious policies of present leadership seem to have been costing the party popular votes.

In any case, what we are witnessing is a media-fueled bout of hysteria going on within the confines of Nagata-cho, one in which the public is not a participant but a disinterested and perhaps disgusted by-stander. Because in all the polls run by the various news organizations, not one has asked the obvious question, “Do you support a no-confidence against the Kan government at this time?”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Could the Kan Government Fall in the Next Two Weeks?

On Friday, in a meeting of the Secretaries General and Diet Affairs Committee chairmen of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito, the attendees agreed to offer a no confidence motion against the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kan Naoto sometime in the first few weeks of June. While the two parties had been talking about the possibility of offering a no confidence motion for a great while, Friday marked their first formal commitment to presenting the motion to the Diet.

Or not.

Despite a litany of what both parties consider to be the failures of the Kan government, failures so severe that LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu declared that “every day that this administration stays in power, more and more of our national interests are damaged,” the submission of the no confidence motion is purportedly conditional on how Prime Minister Kan performs in the meeting of the Special Committee on the Reconstruction from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on May 31 and Diet Question Time on June 1. The New Komeito indeed also reportedly wants to weigh the results of the June 5 gubernatorial election in Aomori Prefecture, where a Democratic Party of Japan candidate is running hard against a two-term LDP incumbent, before it will fully commit to a joint submission of a no confidence motion.

That the current Cabinet is not extremely popular is no secret. In the most recent set of polls taken by the major news organizations, support for the Cabinet, though up from its nadir in the first week of March, remains far from terrific.

Asahi Shimbun (5/16)
Support 26%
Oppose 51%

Sankei Shimbun (5/16)
Support 35%
Oppose 60%

Kyodo News (5/16)
Support 28%
Oppose 57%

A major reason cited for opposing the Cabinet is “the prime minister shows no leadership” (Kyodo: 41% of those not supporting). As for whether or not Prime Minister Kan should resign soon, the Asahi found 41% saying “Yes” and 34% saying “No.” The prime minister may take some small solace in the Kyodo poll, where 36% of those polled said that he should resign when his term as DPJ party president ends in September 2012. Unfortunately, 43% said he should resign by the end of this calendar year, if not sooner.

The lack of popularity of the Cabinet and the Prime Minister is mirrored in a lack of support for the DPJ as a whole. The party has seen its once nearly two-to-one advantage over the LDP in the polls wither away over two years’ time to the point where the party in power polls below the LDP.

Asahi Shimbun (5/16)
“If an election were held now, which party would you vote for in the proportional vote?”
DPJ 22%
LDP 28%

Sankei Shimbun (5/16)
“Which party do you support?”
DPJ 15%
LDP 27%

Kyodo News (5/16)
“Which party do you support?”
DPJ 20%
LDP 27%

It is these low poll numbers for the party, coupled with the party’s poor showings in the 2011 House of Councillors election and the recent April local elections, that has a significant number of DPJ members in the House of Representatives feeling nervous about the security of their seats in the next election, whenever it may be held. Intra-party opposition to the current Cabinet and party leadership is unsurprisingly strongest amongst the legislators allied with or beholden to former party president Ozawa Ichiro.

Ozawa has remained largely hidden from view over the past few months, making only brief and mildly critical comments about the Kan government to groups of supporters and close associates. Thus it was seen to be of immense significance that Ozawa, who has an unsparing hatred of the press, gave a surprise interview to The Wall Street Journal. In the interview, Ozawa issued a series of heavily caveated warnings to the Kan government, including a cryptic message on his position toward the LDP-New Komeito no-confidence motion: “We are at a point where one has to think seriously about what one should do.”

In theory Ozawa could be planning to lead a group of his followers and members of the Hatoyama support group into voting for the no confidence resolution, toppling the Kan government. Such an action would be in line with Ozawa’s reputation as a destroyer and one who has been waiting for the chance to exact revenge on the current leadership of the DPJ, which has unapologetically led a program of de-Ozawafication of the party and its policy platform.

However, a number of hurdles lie in the way of a dramatic move. First is the warning from DPJ Secretary General Okada Katsuya that a vote against the Cabinet will trigger the immediate expulsion from the party of the member in rebellion, adding that even abstaining from the no confidence measure (and by so doing lowering the number of Yes votes necessary for the motion to pass) will be considered worthy of expulsion. Second is the significant number of defectors necessary to aid the LDP and the New Komeito in their attempt to topple Kan. With the Socialist Party already committed to opposing the motion, over 80 members of the DPJ’s ruling coalition would have to defect for the motion to pass, assuming that all the members of the House of Representatives are present and voting. While Ozawa has the fervent loyalty of a remarkably large number of present members of the DPJ, this despite or perhaps even because all his troubles with the Tokyo Prosecutors Office, the thought that he could lead over 80 members of the House into exile strains the imagination. That Ozawa followers and other malcontents could vote for the no confidence measure, then try to swing around and seize control of the DPJ, is even more far fetched. They have no champion to challenge party president Kan or Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio, Kan’s likely successor should Kan decide to not run again in 2012.

Ozawa is certainly always one for surprises. He could indeed have the votes in hand to topple the Kan Cabinet and the necessary promises from the LDP and the New Komeito of significant rewards for himself and his followers. He could be counting on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the unconstitutionality of the existing House of Representatives district borders as handcuffing Prime Minister Kan from unleashing his most potent weapon against rebellion: a dissolution of the Diet and the election of a new House of Representatives. It is certain that if an election were held right now dozens of Ozawa’s followers would lose their seats, leaving him with a rump party likely too small and insignificant to take part in a post-election coalition. However, is it possible to hold an election when the districts are already declared contrary to the constitution? Possibly not, and possibly Ozawa is counting upon this constitutional quandary.

Nevertheless, reason encourages one to think that what Ozawa has done this week courtesy the not-quite-naïve-but-perhaps-not-sufficiently-cynical Wall Street Journal is the equivalent in basketball of the head fake – making a move toward supporting the measure without following through on the motion. The goal in this case would be to lure the LDP and the New Komeito into offering the motion, only to see it go down in flames by a wide margin. A suitably chastened opposition would then be forced to swallow whole some currently stalled government initiatives, not the least of which is the issuance of new debt in order to pay for all the programs in the fiscal 2012 budget. A grateful DPJ party leadership would at the same time halt some of its reversals on policy positions dear to Ozawa’s heart, amongst them the child support payments program, which has been one several Ozawa-authored items in the present budget facing the axe in light of the huge expenses associated with the rebuilding of the Tohoku region and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

As LDP Diet Affairs Chairman Aizawa Ichiro said on Friday, without exaggeration, “Next week is going to be an extremely important week.”