Japan's post-tsunami politics
Political co-operation, hard before the earthquake and tsunami, has got harder
AS JAPAN copes with its worst crisis since the second world war, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, is calling for a new politics. In particular, he wants collaboration with opposition parties mostly bent on ousting him. “Many ways of doing things in this country have come to the end of the road,” he said on April 11th. “To rebuild this country, we need a new mindset. I hope for—and expect—a new direction.”
He seems unlikely to get it. The quake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern Japan, and the nuclear disaster that followed, have disrupted the economy, with power shortages and stricken factories. Ordinary Japanese have cut back on inessential spending, in a mood of sacrificial restraint. Much has changed. Yet one constant remains: petty political bickering.
As the government has attempted to deal with the mess, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has picked on minor gaffes to justify exaggerated displays of outrage. Mr Kan’s offer to the LDP’s leader, Sadakazu Tanigaki, to form a “grand coalition” with his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was rebuffed. The opposition thinks Mr Kan is flailing and his prime ministership, which was in trouble well before the earthquake, is in danger.
In opinion polls, Mr Kan’s personal support has increased slightly since then, but around two-thirds of voters are disappointed with the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly at the Fukushima nuclear plant. On April 12th the nuclear accident there was upgraded to level seven, the highest rating on an international scale of severity. That places it on a par with the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago this month (though the radiation released at Fukushima is only a tenth of Chernobyl’s, and nobody has died from it yet).
On April 10th the DPJ’s troubles took their toll in regional and local elections. The party lost all three of its races for prefectural governorships to the LDP. It failed to gain a plurality in any of 41 prefectural and municipal assemblies that were up for grabs. The drubbing has emboldened LDP politicians to resist more collaboration. As ever, they aim to oust Mr Kan and precipitate an early general election.
A semblance of political co-operation may last only until a second round of local elections on April 24th. It leaves just enough time to pass the first of many proposed disaster-relief bills. Some ??4 trillion (around $48 billion) will go towards rebuilding, as well as helping tsunami victims and farmers and fishermen whose businesses have been hurt.
Later bills will be the source of fresh squabbles. The opposition will urge the DPJ to abandon pledges to introduce a child-support allowance and eliminate toll-road fees. Although the DPJ used these campaign pledges in 2009 to help defeat the LDP after a half-century in power, they are only mildly popular now. People know they will push Japan ever deeper into debt.
Complicating Mr Kan’s position is the make-up of his own party. The DPJ is stuffed with backbenchers loyal to Ichiro Ozawa, an old-timer who resigned from the party leadership because of a fund-raising scandal but who still undermines Mr Kan. The prime minister has to cut his cloth to suit Mr Ozawa’s gang.
The LDP is hardly in better shape. Few people believe it would have handled the many-headed catastrophe any more adroitly. And they know that the LDP’s long dominance in some ways prepared the way for the crisis. For instance, weak regulation of the nuclear-power industry allowed old, ill-supervised reactors such as those at the Fukushima plant to remain in service.
The party is beset by internal conflict. The dinosaurs see little need to revitalise the party’s appeal or methods. Indeed, post-tsunami reconstruction, they think, is a way to dole out public-works contracts, just as in the old days. Younger members think this is why politicians and voters who over the years grew disenchanted with the LDP are not returning to the fold. According to a recent poll in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, half of Japan’s public supports neither party.