Yukio Hatoyama whose Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a landslide general elections victory over the incumbent Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) 9 months ago announced to resign yesterday citing his failure to resolve a dispute over a US military base relocation agreement and party funding scandals involving himself and several other party friends and foes.
Hatoyama is the fourth Prime Minister to resign in four years (all of whom stayed in office for only a year or less). With him resigned controversial and powerful DPJ Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa who, as Kyodo News reported, already last week gave the inner-party go-ahead to replace the incumbent Prime Minister.
Hatoyama replied by asking Ozawa to thrown in the towel as well as part of the pretty much business-as-usual inner party-sponsored ousting of a Japanese Prime Minister.
Hatoyama’s coalition government was off a for a bad start from the very beginning, not least because the DPJ’s junior coalition partners (the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the New People’s Party, both of which were only invited to join the coalition to keep them from blocking lawmaking in the Upper House where the DPJ lacks an absolute majority) supported very little (if anything) on the DPJ’s policy agenda.
What’s more, the SDP threatened very early on to leave the coalition should Hatoyama decide not to keep his promise to reduce US military presence on Okinawa. It just that last week after Hatoyama’s announcement to stick with the existing 2006 US-Japan base re-location agreement to move the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from densely populated southern to northern Okinawa.
To be sure, Hatoyama should have thought more thoroughly carefully about where to re-locate the US base to before announcing to revise the troops re-location agreement, but he should be given credit to try to do for a few months what all his post-war predecessors did not do before him: Resist Washington’s pressure as regards US military presence and burden on Okinawa.
Unfortunately for Hatoyama and his government, the proposals made by Hatoyama and some his ministers on where to re-locate the base to were all unrealistic and unacceptable to either the US or local government authorities (inside and later outside of Okinawa) asked to host the base in their constituencies.
Sure enough, Washington was never really willing to consider changes to the existing base relocation agreement and has made that very in numerous bilateral encounters over recent months.
Japan’s two biggest newspapers, The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Asahi Shimbun (which sell 11 and 10 million copies per day respectively) for their part covered Hatoyama’s difficulties and mishaps with great enthusiasm and at times indeed schadenfreude.
In fact, publishing daily reports on Hatoyama’s shrinking public approval rates and excessively focusing on the Prime Minister’s problems with the US base re-location issue and inner-party financial scandals left very little space for coverage on what the government has achieved over the last eight months.
Admittedly, that list is not very long, but Hatoyama was (as he promised on the election campaign trail) able to exclude the ministerial bureaucracy from cabinet meetings (which over decades stood for much of what was very wrong with Japanese democracy), increase monthly child allowance payments and introduce tuition-free high schools.
What is next?
The DPJ will present a new Cabinet next Monday and Japan’s current Finance Minister Naoto Kan is the frontrunner to head it as new party boss and Prime Minister. Kan earned himself a reputation for toughness and courage when he as health minister took on the ministerial bureaucracy over an HIV-tainted blood products scandal in the mid-1990s.
And courage is probably what the DPJ needs now with the upcoming Upper House elections (with half of the 242 Upper House seats contested) scheduled to take place on July 11. The DPJ’s plan was (or still is) to win an absolute majority in the Upper House to govern without difficult coalition partners-now most likely an overambitious goal, unless the results of all recent Upper House election-related opinion polls turn out to be wrong.
Should that not be the case (which is very likely), Tokyo-based analyst Takeo Toshikawa reckons, the DPJ might choose to look for new (and less trouble-making) coalition partners such as the New Komeito Party to make sure that DPJ proposal bills get passed in the Upper House after July 11.
Fortunately, for the DPJ, the Japanese electorate does not have a great deal of attractive alternatives to choose from on July 11.
The LDP, the country’s biggest opposition party, is plagued by infighting and defections with several party heavyweights regularly announcing to leave the party and establish new political group and parties. Recent months have indeed been difficult for the once mighty catch-all LDP which practically governed Japan (with a 11-month interruption from 1993/1994) from 1955 until 2009.
However, even if the LDP was over the last eight months unable to make any political capital of the DPJ’s shrinking popularity and policy failures, recent opinion polls suggest that a growing number of voters might nonetheless but willing to return voting for them. That is remarkable in view of the near-absence of a credible and visible profile as the country’s biggest opposition party and the fact the LDP lost more than 60 per cent of its Lower House seats after the general election last September.
To be sure, the LDP will not win the elections, but the fact that parts of Japan’s electorate which ended LDP-led “one-party democracy” in Japan so decisively last September is again willing to give its vote to the LDP, says quite a lot about the (high) level of dissatisfaction and disillusion amongst Japan’s voters with the DPJ-led government.
Japan’s new Prime Minister (possibly Naoto Kan but also Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada is reportedly interested in the job) will probably spend the coming weeks to regain some of that lost trust and speak to a few smaller parties and potential coalition partners.