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Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011
Even tougher year may lie ahead for Kan
Passing budget, local elections, TPP entry to test leader's mettle
In the seven months Prime Minister Naoto Kan has been in office he has defeated Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa in the party's presidential election, dealt with an aggressive and confrontational China over the Senkaku Islands row and repaired ties with the United States that were damaged by his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama.
But Kan may soon discover this was just a warmup for what lies in store in 2011.
If Kan wants to buck the trend of short-lived administrations during the past five years, he needs to survive at least three key political challenges.
His first crucial task will be passing the fiscal 2011 budget in the divided Diet. Next up will be ensuring DPJ candidates prevail in local elections in April. Then Kan needs to win over a skeptical public over joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a U.S.-led free-trade framework, before November's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Complicating the passage of the fiscal budget is Ozawa's political funding scandal, which has created an internal rift in the DPJ between his supporters and those who back Kan.
"There is a way to kill two birds with one stone," said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, professor of politics at Keio University. "That is to push Ozawa and his supporters out of the party and form a grand coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party."
Ironically, it was Ozawa who, while DPJ president, advocated a grand coalition in 2007 with the then ruling LDP, only for his own party to shoot down his plans.
After repeated calls from DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada and Kan, Ozawa finally agreed to voluntarily appear before the Lower House ethics panel in the ordinary Diet session. But if Ozawa is formally indicted, the party may call on him to leave. That could prompt Ozawa and about a dozen of his disciples to bolt.
Kobayashi noted there is little policy difference between the DPJ and the LDP.
"The DPJ can justify the grand coalition by saying it wants to 'break away from the remnants of old-fashioned politics,' " he said. "This is Kan's only option if his support rate continues to fall."
Speculation over a grand coalition was fueled when The Yomiuri Shimbun's chairman, Tsuneo Watanabe, an influential figure in Nagata-cho who attempted to orchestrate a grand coalition between the two parties in 2007, met with LDP President Sadakazu TaniDgaki on Dec. 8.
Kan has not ruled out a grand coalition although he added that such an idea would not gain public acceptance unless there is a justifiable cause, such as revising the Constitution.
Political commentator Takao Toshikawa, who edits the Tokyo Insideline newsletter, agreed that a grand coalition is a possibility.
"The two parties may join hands temporarily to achieve key goals, such as raising the consumption tax, joining the TPP, resolving the relocation of the U.S. Futenma air base and slashing the number of lawmakers," said Toshikawa.
But the two parties need to overcome a big hurdle before forming a coalition.
"Most of the members compete with each other in their electoral districts" and thus forsaking candidates for the sake of compromise is next to impossible, said a DPJ source who asked not to be named.
Therefore, Kan is going for the more viable option of seeking support from smaller opposition parties, including Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan) and the Social Democratic Party, a former coalition partner of the DPJ, to gain enough votes to ensure the budget and its related bills are passed.
But this approach has proved fruitless so far.
Kan's offer to Tachiagare Nippon to join the ruling bloc was met with fierce opposition from most of the party's six members, who decided Monday they would not join the coalition.
To lure the SDP back, or at least to gain its votes to pass the fiscal 2011 budget, Kan gave up on lifting a self-imposed embargo on arms exports that the SDP strongly opposes.
However, negotiations on policies for the fiscal 2011 budget between the DPJ and the SDP broke up in December, leaving Kan with no guarantee that he can gain enough votes to get the budget-related bills passed. Despite the disparity, the two parties agreed to continue holding weekly policy talks, leaving the window open for further negotiations.
The budget itself is expected to clear the Diet even if the Upper House votes it down because the decision of the Lower House, in which the DPJ-led coalition has a majority, holds sway.
But this condition does not apply to budget-related bills necessary to implement the budget. If those bills are voted down in the upper chamber, they will need to be voted on again in the Lower House and passed with a two-thirds majority, or 319 votes or more, to override the Upper House's decision.
In the lower chamber, the DPJ and partner Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) currently have 311 seats in addition to two independents close to the DPJ. The ruling coalition therefore requires an additional six seats to reach the 319 mark — the exact number of seats the SDP has.
As the ordinary Diet session is expected to be rocky, speculation is rife that Kan will reshuffle the Cabinet before the session convenes in late January, probably replacing Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi to placate the opposition camp and deny them an excuse to delay deliberations.
"He seems to be intending to reshuffle the Cabinet," said DPJ veteran lawmaker Hajime Ishii, who dined with Kan on Dec. 23.
Opposition parties are demanding that Kan replace the two ministers following two nonbinding censure motions that cleared the Upper House in November.
The LDP and New Komeito have said they will boycott any Diet deliberations the two ministers attend.
"Because Sengoku orchestrates the policies and strategies of the Kan administration, he may be appointed as the party's policy chief," said journalist Toshikawa.
Toshikawa noted that possible candidates to become the next chief Cabinet secretary include Koichiro Genba, state minister in charge of national policy, Goshi Hosono, who voted for Ozawa in the September party presidential poll but is keeping his distance from him, and Deputy Secretary General Yukio Edano.
Even if Kan clears the budget hurdle, calls for his resignation may grow if DPJ candidates fail in April's gubernatorial, mayoral and local assembly elections.
Thirteen gubernatorial elections, including in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Fukuoka, as well as five mayoral elections, including Sapporo, will be held April 10. Other mayoral and assembly elections will be held April 24.
A resounding defeat in the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly election on Dec. 12 has led DPJ members to think twice about whether they can win the April elections under Kan.
In addition, the prime minister is expected to face fierce opposition from party lawmakers elected from rural districts, where many farmers oppose joining the TPP free-trade pact.
When the government decided in November to begin consultations with nine countries involved in the TPP negotiations, those DPJ lawmakers strongly opposed the move, saying it will deal the agricultural industry a staggering blow.
If the Kan administration formally decides to join the TPP negotiations before the APEC meeting next November in Hawaii, he may not survive the mounting calls for him to resign.
Possible successors include Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and Secretary General Katsuya Okada, both of whom have served as DPJ president, said Kobayashi of Keio University.
"A year from now, Kan may no longer be prime minister," said Kobayashi.