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.”


Jan Moren said...

Welcome back.

Ozawa could be playing a long game though: counting on the split and fall of the DPJ, and the lack of any readiness to rule from the LDP, to open the road for a realignment. A new party would appear, with elements from both the DPJ and the LDP, with him either as leader (unlikely) or kingmaker/power behind the throne.

For that to happen he would have had to already paved the way, though, and concluded preliminary talks with candidate members in the current LDP. I'm not sure how feasible it'd be to do that without anybody catching wind of it in public. said...

Welcome back, you have been missed!!

Anonymous said...

The dissolution weapon has not had much coverage in the Japanese media, but as you mention, could have a massive impact upon the incentives to support a no-confidence motion for some in the DPJ. This might well be because it gets in the way of a good story, but I am pretty sure a few weeks back in response to a parliamentary question the Kan government offered a legal interpretation that an election could be held despite the constitutional issues. For a start, the will of Supreme Court is not perhaps as compelling on electoral issues as it should be.

Even if so, I am not sure what would happen - can the supreme court work fast enough to prevent the government from going through with the dissolution if it so wanted? They have been so hands off prior to this, it would surprise me if it suddenly became more proactive on electoral issues to the point of having an actual impact.

Looked for the parliamentary question, details here:

Anonymous said...


Hoofin said...

I don't think that the Japanese Supreme Court would invalidate an election based on the old borders. It calls to mind Bush v. Gore, though.