Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko managed to slip out of town over the weekend, leaving to Deputy Prime Minister Okada Tatsuya, Loose Cannon Sengoku Yoshito, Environment Minister Hosono Goshi and State Minister for Reconstruction Hirano Tatsuo the unpleasant and somewhat Sisyphean job of trying to convince regional governors and city officials that restarting the Oi Power Plants #3 and #4 reactors is a simply smashing idea. During his absence from Tokyo, the PM managed to slip in and out of the United States without creating much of a fuss or an impression (E - yes, I am aware of the shortcomings of the source). Luckily at the summit, where the PM would normally face probing questions as to what the government of this blessed land will do to initiate the move of Marine Corps elements from Futenma to a replacement facility at Henoko in Nago City, got completely lost in the strategic and human rights nightmare of the Chen Guangcheng Affair, which has so far managed, in remarkable thoroughness, to make everyone including Chen looking bereft of any sort of long-range thinking.
After these two immaculate escapes from tight spots, Noda will be returning to Tokyo, leaving behind only the impression of a heretofore unremarked-upon bulk: "For a Japanese PM, this guy has some weight to throw around."
The Impenetrable One returns to an ambiguous situation in the Diet. The business in the House of Councillors should be grinding to a halt due to the Liberal Democratic Party's boycott of all Diet official business, including committee meetings. Unfortunately for the LDP, however, its electoral and Diet business partner the New Komeito has elected to continue participating in House of Councillors affairs, straining the strong relationship between the LDP and the New Komeito and putting immense pressure on the easily exasperated and not particularly creative LDP president Tanigaki Sadakazu to craft a bridge to his erstwhile allies.
Meanwhile, withing the DPJ, the question of Ozawa Ichiro's reinstatement to full party membership awaits. It is not really much of a question: with his trial over, a not-guilty verdict and no chance of the prosecutors refiling charges -- double jeopardy being one of the "Surprise, I Still Got Ya" deviations this blessed land makes from the practices of The Greater Mentor -- the United States -- nothing stands in the way of his reinstatement.
[As regards double jeopardy, I can still remember the look of open-mouthed disbelief on Liberal Democratic Party bigwig Muraoka Kanezo's face when he was told he had been reindicted for his part in the Hashimoto Dental Association Affair. "How is that possible?" he asked, incredulous, his certitude collapsing. He was found guilty in the prosecutors office's second attempt to put him away.]
What Ozawa will do once he is reinstated is the big question. The news media, having the incentive to make politics seem far more exciting than it is, have been predicting that Ozawa, with his allies clustered closely about him rather than loosely as they were in his days of exile, will run rampant through party politics, threatening to withhold their votes on marquee policies such as the enabling legislation for the imposition of a doubling of the consumption tax and for the framework allowing Japan to begin preliminary talks on joining the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.
Truth is, that even despite the suspension, Ozawa and his allies were running pretty rampant before Ozawa's acquittal was handed down on April 26 (one with an implicit warning to Ozawa that the case against him was not proven, that he was not necessarily not guilty of violations of law, only not guilty of the charges under which he had been tried). That they were unable to derail the prime minister's program of imposing the tax, when solid economic arguments against its imposition were available, shows that the Ozawa team is not quite the machine it is purported to be.
As for Ozawa leading his team of intra-party commandos in a torpedoing the Noda Program (and if anyone can tell me what that might be, please leave a comment below), the man in the surgical mask has always done most of his work at home, where no one can see him or out in the countryside. His attendance record at the Diet and at DPJ functions is abysmal.
Getting his suspension lifted will likely not have much of an effect on Ozawa's activities, especially with 77% of the voters (Kyodo news poll of April 28-29) thinking that despite his acquittal, he still has an obligation to go before the Diet and explain the creative accounting practices of his aides and what, if anything, was going on in his name.
Noda himself must face the wrath of the voters, seemingly dismayed by the government's eagerness to restart the Oi reactors, despite a majority of the voters in the cities and prefectures surrounding the plant opposing the restart as premature. The voters of surrounding communities, ones who have not been bought off over the decades by jobs at the plants, top-class public facilities and services and direct subsidies, find that restarting reactors that are guaranteed safe to operate for the most part (omune ni) is an unacceptably qualified state of affairs. Voters around the nation seem to share these feelings. While the Oi restart cannot be directly linked to the loss of public confidence in the government and the DPJ in April (bloody uninquisitive pollsters...) the restart was the only of two significant rows to break out during the month in question.
That the popularity numbers for the Cabinet are poor is a matter of opinion. I have have argued before that the best an active prime minister can hope for is around 30%, after the initial burst of post-election popularity has dissipated. The Noda Cabinet's current reading of 29%, down two points from the March reading of 31% is relatively good in light of the extremely controversial policies (the consumption tax, the reactor restarts) the government is pursuing.
What is in inescapable is that the popularity numbers for the Democratic Party of Japan are dire and that April was a catastrophic month for the party. To the all important question, "What party will you cast your vote for on the proportion ballot in the next House of Councillors election?" the party-by-party numbers for April 28-29 were as below, with the previous month's figures are in [ ].
DPJ 13.2% [20.0]
LDP 22.7% [23.3]
Your Party 6.0% [7.3]
New Komeito 3.6% [4.2]
Japan Communist Party 3.4% [2.7]
Sunrise Party 1.3% [0.8]
Democratic Socialist Party 0.9% [0.3%]
Japan New Party 0.8% [0.6]
Other 2.3% [3.0]
None Of The Above 46.1% [37.4]
In addition to the pell-mell efforts to restart the Oi reactors, the DPJ's ugly and very public internal battles over the consumption tax likely did little to foster confidence in the party's leadership abilities. Internal debate is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when real compromises are weighed and consequences of decisions considered. Just saying "No" to what the other side is suggesting, however, is a sure way to make your assembly look like an overgrown and overpaid PTA.
The real winner in the month of acrimony was, as is seemingly the case with increasing frequency "None of these b___ds" - which pulled in 46% of the vote, up a whopping 9% from the readings a month earlier.
The goals for the Noda Cabinet and the DPJ, if it can hold together as a party, are clear:
- articulate the reasons why the Cabinet sees raising taxes as a necessity
- continue to find ways of driving wedges in between the New Komeito and the LDP
- hope that after exerting every possible effort to restart the Oi reactors and other reactors feeding into the grid served by Kansai Electric Power (KEPCO), their efforts fail.
The last is a cynical but seemingly necessary failure of the imposition of national will over local governmental authorities. Any responsible national government, looking at the predicted shortfalls of generating power in the Kansai, would be proceeding as the Noda government has proceeded. The politicians and the citizens of the Kansai region, particularly the voters of Osaka City and their mayor, Hashimoto Toru, have perversely been those most opposed to the restart of the reactors, despite KEPCO's assertions that it faces a crushing lack of generating capacity of nearly 20% this summer. (J)
Hashimoto and the voters of Osaka have a deep mistrust of KEPCO, extending back to last year. KEPCO's management has been far from transparent about its power capacity and rate calculations. However, this blessed land dodged a bullet last year, the summer being rather mild and the nation's tolerance for energy saving being exceptionally high. This year may be very different, and will almost certainly be most different not in the capital region or the region hardest hit by the earthquakes and tsunami but in the Kansai and Hokkaido, where the power companies were most deeply committed to nuclear power.
Should Hashimoto and other local leaders persist in hampering the restarts of reactors, and the resulting lack of power generating capacity lead to blackouts, either planned or unplanned, the Kansai's current regionalist challenge to Tokyo control will be severely damaged. Hashimoto's political ambitions may indeed be seriously set back, if the government can pin the blame for the power cuts on him, saying, "We told you so, we told you so, we told you so...and you just would't listen."
A brutal political calculus, perhaps. One that even could lead to some persons actually dying for lack of electricity. However, the blame squarely lies on the ambition and blindness of Hashimoto and his ilk, willing to ride a populist wave, even if it leads to disaster.