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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011
Rough ride awaiting Mr. Kan
Prime Minister Naoto Kan expressed his political hopes for 2011 at a news conference Tuesday, including his determination to end money-tainted politics and his wish to hold consultations with the opposition forces on reform of the social welfare system and reform of the tax system, which would include raising the consumption tax. But the political situation surrounding him will not allow things to go as smoothly as he wishes.
Mr. Kan said, "This year I want to overcome the problem of money in politics." His remark is aimed at former Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa, who lost to Mr. Kan in the DPJ's presidential election in September and whose aides have been indicted over political funds scandals. Mr. Kan believes that Mr. Ozawa's presence in the DPJ is a big factor that has caused his Cabinet's approval rating to sink below 30 percent.
As a result of decisions by a citizens' legal panel, Mr. Ozawa is expected to be indicted in late January in connection with his political funds management body's alleged false reporting over a fund raised in 2004. Mr. Ozawa in late December told politicians close to him that he was ready to appear and speak before the Lower House's Council on Political Ethics even before the start of the 150-day ordinary Diet session this month as Mr. Kan and the DPJ leadership want.
At the news conference, Mr. Kan escalated his attack on Mr. Ozawa by saying that if he is indicted, he should concentrate on his trial and consider resigning as a Diet member.
Mr. Kan is apparently trying to shift the responsibility for his administration's poor performance to Mr. Ozawa. Ridding of the strongman may help raise his Cabinet's approval rating but will have no effect of improving Mr. Kan's running of the government.
His vehement attack on Mr. Ozawa will fan the antipathy of pro-Ozawa DPJ members to Mr. Kan, thus undermining the party unity. The more Mr. Kan attacks Mr. Ozawa, the further deepens people's perception that the DPJ is obsessed with an intraparty strife, forgetting stabilizing people's lives.
Even if Mr. Kan and the DPJ leadership expel Mr. Ozawa from the party, the opposition parties will not give a helping hand to him because they perceive the Kan administration as a sinking ship.
Mr. Kan expressed a hope to launch cross-party talks involving the DPJ and opposition forces on social security reform and on how to finance social security by around June. But it is very unlikely that the opposition forces will cooperate on these matters because they are waiting for the Kan administration to further weaken and are trying to seize a political chance to pull it down. Mr. Kan also should remember that after flip-flopping on the consumption tax issue during the campaign for the July Upper House election, he stopped talking about the issue for many months, causing a halt in public discussions over tax reform.
Mr. Kan faces another headache. The opposition parties that in November passed censure resolutions against Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and infrastructure and transporter minister Sumio Mabuchi in the opposition-controlled Upper House are now poised not to join Diet deliberations unless Mr. Kan removes the two from his Cabinet.
The two Cabinet members were criticized especially for their handling of a Chinese trawler's colliding with two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships near the Senkaku Islands of Okinawa Prefecture in September.
Mr. Kan expressed his intention to reshuffle his Cabinet prior to the start of the regular Diet session, hinting that he will remove Mr. Sengoku from his portfolio. Mr. Sengoku has played an important role in running the government and protecting Mr. Kan from the opposition forces' attacks. Removal of Mr. Sengoku, the cornerstone of the Kan Cabinet, would further weaken the Cabinet.
Mr. Kan said that his administration will decide by around June whether Japan should join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free trade agreement the United States, Australia, Chile and several other countries are pushing forward. Unless he comes up with a policy package that will make Japanese agriculture more competitive, he will face strong opposition from farm lobbies strongly opposed to the TPP. Mr. Kan also has no prospects for solving the issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa Island.
Mr. Kan will face a severe test in April when local elections will be held at many places in Japan. The DPJ suffered one defeat after another in local elections last year, raising fears that the DPJ may suffer great setbacks in the coming elections. There is also a possibility that even before the local elections, the Upper House will vote down budget-related bills, cornering the Kan Cabinet. Unless Mr. Kan and the DPJ leadership develop strong political prowess, the Kan administration could face a big crisis as early as March.