Japan’s hopeless politics
The uncanny stickability of Japan’s prime minister
Jul 30th 2011 | TOKYO| from the print edition
ALREADY enduring its sixth prime minister in five years, Japan is overdue a seventh. Naoto Kan, the man at present on the inside of the revolving door, only stayed there by promising at the beginning of June to step down soon, in return for a stay of execution at a parliamentary no-confidence vote. For both the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and his comrades in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) the way he is lingering over his departure is exasperating.
For rival politicians (a category that includes virtually all of them), it is also rather frightening. As Japan struggles to cope with the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant, Mr Kan has nailed his colours to the anti-nuclear mast, arguing that Japan needs to reduce its dependence on atomic energy. Oddly he later watered this down, by saying he was only expressing a personal view not a government policy. But other politicians fear that, rather than quit, he may call an election, campaign on the future of the nuclear industry and (such is the popular hostility to it) win. Goshi Hosono, an avowedly pro-nuclear DPJ technocrat whom Mr Kan appointed as minister in charge of the nuclear mess, says it is “not a good idea” to test the public on this issue.
This week Mr Kan said he had no intention of dissolving parliament early, arguing that the public would not like it and that it would be better to wait until 2013. Even that did not entirely quash rumours that he may use the anniversary on August 6th of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to make a dramatic anti-nuclear gesture.
A snap election would seem out of character. But Mr Kan has still not set a date for his departure. At the end of June he listed three conditions he wanted met before standing down. One was fulfilled this week, with the passage of a ¥2 trillion ($26 billion) supplementary budget to help pay for recovery from the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March. There is also some progress on the second condition, a law covering the setting of feed-in tariffs for electricity, to encourage the development of renewable energy.
The third, passage of legislation enabling the government to borrow to finance its deficit, may be trickier. In an echo of the showdown in Washington, DC, the LDP wants Mr Kan to drop some of the DPJ’s spending promises—such as an allowance for raising children, and the abolition of expressway tolls and tuition fees for public high schools.
Even if that dispute is resolved, Mr Kan may still try to hang on after the end of this parliamentary session on August 31st. This seems remarkable. The political class loathes him; the press relentlessly reviles him; business despises him; and voters want him to go. His approval rating has plummeted to below 20%.
One of his advisers, however, points out that most other politicians score even lower in the polls. Mr Kan’s unpopularity is a symptom of a deeper problem: a loss of faith in politics generally. Partisan and intra-party bickering at a time of national emergency has further battered politics’ reputation. Mr Kan’s government is widely seen as having been inept in disaster-management, and its standing will sink deeper if, as many expect, scares about nuclear-tainted food worsen.
Japan badly needs effective government. The clean-up from the tsunami and earthquake has been impressive. But rebuilding has yet to begin, because big and urgent decisions about what to rebuild where have yet to be taken. Mr Kan’s team hardly seems up to the job. But few believe a replacement would be much better.
Desperate to get rid of him, some of his colleagues are whispering of their own weapon of mass destruction: the collective resignation of the cabinet and DPJ hierarchy. That might do the trick in ousting Mr Kan. But it would not lift the contempt in which the political class is held.