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Friday, June 3, 2011
Kan buys time but cedes advantage to opposition
By ALEX MARTIN
Prime Minister Naoto Kan handily prevailed over an opposition-backed no-confidence motion Thursday, in part because he compromised with foes within his Democratic Party of Japan to step down in the near future after he feels he has accomplished his disaster-response duties.
The latest turn of events, which opposition lawmakers called "a charade," allowed Kan, deeply unpopular over his perceived lack of leadership in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis, to buy time.
With the focus now shifting to when Kan will actually leave and who will replace him, analysts said the DPJ will be forced to work closely and accommodate the opposition in the divided Diet to pass key bills aimed at facilitating reconstruction efforts.
"The opposition has retained the initiative, after extracting Kan's promise to step down, and will use it to gain the upper hand in negotiations with the ruling coalition," said Satoru Matsubara, a professor of politics at Toyo University.
"But the DPJ did succeed in avoiding a worst-case scenario of splitting the party or calling a general election," Matsubara said.
Lacking a majority in the Upper House, the DPJ-led ruling coalition requires the opposition's cooperation to pass key bills and a second supplementary budget intended to hasten disaster recovery efforts.
The government has said the cost of reconstruction could reach ¥25 trillion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster on record. The nation's public finances are already creaking under a debt that has ballooned to twice the size of the country's gross domestic product.
DPJ veteran and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, a key Kan foe, said Kan agreed to step down around the time the draft for the secondary budget is prepared, hinting his exit may take place in weeks and likely before the fall Diet session kicks off.
But it is unclear who will succeed Kan. With him surviving the no-confidence vote, pundits expect that the influence of his archrival and party kingpin, Ichiro Ozawa, will diminish within the DPJ for now.
Despite gathering around 50 DPJ lawmakers who threatened to support the no-confidence vote, many of Ozawa's followers ultimately decided not to back the motion.
Ozawa failed to show up for the ballot, and it is unclear how the administration will reprimand 15 members who were absent from the voting session.
Matsubara of Toyo University said that considering the public's deep distrust of the administration, it is unlikely that DPJ veterans close to Kan, including Secretary General Katsuya Okada, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, will land the top spot.
"It would have to be someone who has kept their distance from the current leadership," he said.
"With a divided Diet, the new leader will have to be someone the opposition approves of and who will be able to negotiate with them," Matsubara said, adding it is possible the DPJ may approach New Komeito to form a short-term alliance.
While Ozawa was believed poised to launch a new party prior to the no-confidence vote, it is now unclear what his next move will be.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, suggested that with the Kan-Ozawa showdown sidelined for now, it is possible the interal conflict that has split the DPJ will calm down.
"And although the opposition will continue to nudge Kan toward stepping down, they will also have to show willingness to cooperate if they want to avoid being the target of the public's contempt," he said.
Kan's tenure has been seen financial scandals, a deadlocked Diet, high-level resignations and unpopular tax reforms that have eroded his popularity rating.
And despite enjoying a rebound in support immediately after March 11, his popularity soon fell again following criticism of his disaster management.
A recent poll taken by Jiji Press indicated that nearly 70 percent of respondents felt Kan should resign.
But with political gridlock in the Diet and short-lived administrations — Kan is the fifth prime minister in as many years — further delays in passing key policies risk aggravating the public's discontent.
Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of media and politics at Gakushuin Women's College, warned that the public's patience with the government is at the breaking point.
"Political distrust has grown to an unprecedented level, with the recent disasters and nuclear crisis adding to the sense of gloom," he said.