Friday, April 29, 2011

Let’s Be Nice to Our Prime Minister; It’s a National Holiday, for God’s Sake

Kaoto Kan, currently Japan’s prime minister, is not exactly my favorite politician, but surely he deserves some credit for what he is trying to do. He does have a policy agenda that is relatively coherent and more consonant with the pre-Ozawa manifesto as well as the post-3.11 realities. Moreover, the opposition parties as well as Ozawa’s allies in the DPJ are not well-positioned to force him out. That doesn’t mean that he’s in the clear until the DPJ leadership election in 2012, but I think that reports of his imminent demise are very much premature. If you’re interested, please read on.

He continues to push ahead on social safety network reform coupled to a consumption tax hike despite last year’s upper house election setback. This is a reversion to the DPJ’s pre-Ozawa manifesto. Scaling back the child allowance also brings it more in line with the pre-Ozawa manifesto. Add the reduction in scope for agricultural income subsidies—remember that the DPJ linked the money to trade liberalization—and it’s pretty clear that Kan is trying to pull the DPJ back toward the urban orientation of its pre-Ozawa/Hatoyama days. From this perspective, I see no reason to think that he won’t revive his TPP initiative, once the relief and recovery process is fully on track and the nuclear situation is stabilized so he won’t look like he’s kicking the Tohoku and Kanto farmers while they’re down. Toll-free highways—another big ticket item—had already been scaled back substantially by Seiji Maehara as Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism when he was forced to cough up gasoline tax revenue to finance Ozawa’s old-school politics road-building plans, but the majority of the Japanese public won’t be sorry to see that experiment die.

So Kan certainly does have a policy program, though it is poorly articulated. Perhaps that is by design; he doesn’t want to completely alienate the DPJ’s pro-Ozawa wing, which has pretty much been frozen out of the policymaking process and is using the manifesto as a rallying cry. There’s also the matter of his surprising—to me at least—lack of communication instincts judging from his performance as prime minister. Still, if you look beyond the headlines in the media and the criticism from his DPJ detractors, his policy agenda in my view is both more coherent and more consonant with the PDJ policy agenda before Ozawa altered it, likely for electoral purposes.

But what are his political prospects? A few things to keep in mind. First, the LDP calls for Kan’s resignation are not to be believed. The last thing that they want is to go into an election against a DPJ under rejuvenated leadership. Second, Komeito does not want to lean on the Sokagakkai troops again so soon after the “nationwide” local elections. Besides, it currently has enormous leverage over the DPJ now because of its ability to deliver an upper house majority by itself. Komeito can marginally increase its leverage through a lower house election if it results in a near-equal DPJ-LDP split, allowing Komeito to give a lower house majority to either of the two major parties. I say “marginally” because choosing the LDP would mean that the administration would have to work with an upper house minority. Why upset the political cart for a new lower house configuration that could trigger further political realignment? On this side of the aisle, the SDP has lost just about every general election since it sold its pacifist soul to buy the prime minister’s office for Tomiichi Murayama. There is no reason to believe that the next election will be any different. And the formal coalition partner PNP is what it is. The DPJ loses one seat and there goes the DPJ-PNP-SDP’s joint lower house supermajority, and with it what remains of the PNP’s (and SDP’s) leverage. As for Ozawa’s DPJ allies, if they manage to secure enough breakaways to pass a lower house vote of no confidence in the Kan cabinet, their lower house members will have to fight a three- or four-way battle against the DPJ, LDP, and Your Party. And many of them are first-termers, who will surely be at least as vulnerable as the Koizumi Kids. All this does not mean that

This does not mean that Kan’s path leading up to (but not including) the 2012 DPJ leadership election is clear. There is always the chance that the opposition parties and Ozawa’s allies will wind up pushing Kan too hard, with results that at least some of them do not want at all. Wars have been started that way. More plausibly, if Kan looks so bad that his DPJ supporters start abandoning him, that’s the end for him. He may be stubborn, he may have a massive ego, but he’s not so selfish that he’ll take the DPJ down with him by calling a snap election. He’ll step down, leaving it to someone more articulate and telegenic to lead that charge. Don’t even rule out Ozawa’s arch DPJ nemesis Yukio Edano in that case; politics makes strange bedfellows.

And beyond all the politics, there is the matter of genuine policy differences. Kan does have a policy agenda that is significantly at odds with what Ozawa and his DPJ allies profess, never mind their motives. This chasm also exists within the LDP as well. And reform is afoot in the upper house, although the next election there is not due until 2013. Feel free to make your own inferences here.


Mark said...

I am very disappointed to hear that you think the Kan administration is not on its deathbed. I am very disappointed to hear that Kan still wants to raise the sales tax. I am very disappointed to hear that Kan does not understand the importance of the child allowance program. I am very disappointed to hear that Kan might soon neglect the rural parts of Japan. And I was very disappointed to hear that Kan still wants to implement the current Futenma relocation plan.

Joe said...

It's good to see you posting Okumura-san. I hope everything's been okay. The other two Japanese political analysis blogs I follow, Shisaku and Observing Japan, seem to be on lhiatus.

From both you observations and my own conclusions following the news post 3/11 (uh-oh, damned American media influence), it seems not that Kan has been doing things badly, just not that he's been _seen_ being a stronger leader. I read in English media about the governors' conference that about 26 were critical of Kan's disaster response, but when asked to be more specific, they said silly things like he didn't having the Fukushima reactor rating pushed to level 7 soon enough, or that he wasn't putting out information fast enough, or that he wasn't meeting the "changing needs of the refugees" fast enough. Each of which is pretty much point-scoring at best, idiotic and childish at worst.

Anyhow, if they somehow managed do get Kan to resign, who on earth do Ozawa and his bootlickers (that includes Hatoyama) think will replace him? They are dreaming if they think Ozawa will be given the chance; it's far more likely it will be someone just as determined to keep them out of the loop.

Jun Okumura said...

Mark: Whether you like it or not, that is the direction in which Japanese policies are trending long-term.

Joe: John Campbell and Steven Reed, two scholars whom I highly respect, see a definite anti-DPJ bias in the Japanese media. I’m not as a sure as they are, most likely because I am not as observant. However, I did write a memo on the reasons why this could be so, which I’ll be happy to send you (or anyone else reading this) if you write to my Gmail account, which is available on my profile page. I have to add, though, that Kan has done a very poor job of public communication, and that I strongly disagree with the haphazard manner in which he has proceeded with his command-and-control arrangements.

Finally, I share your skepticism about a plausible replacement for Kan. That in my view is the fatal flaw in the attempt by Ozawa’s people to get rid of him. That, and the obviousness of the fact that their claims about the manifesto has nothing to do with policy and everything to do about politics, means in my view that they will not be able to convince enough DPJ Diet members to depose Kan as DPJ leader or pass a vote of no confidence in the lower house (or even a censure motion in the upper house).

sigma1 said...

I see already this weekend despite his histrionics earlier this week that Hatoyama is now suggesting that now may not be the best time to push Kan too hard and has suggested as much to Ozawa who is apparently going to think about it over the break. Either the coup failed to get the numbers, Kan won a game of brinkmanship or a bit of both. Not soon enough to be a trend yet but as soon as the local elections were over Komeito seems to have become a voice of reason...this could be something Kan may use - as long, as it seems, he is willing to put up with Komeito using him as a punching bag while they cooperate behind the scenes.

I guess I am too inexperienced to appreciate the "pre-Ozawa" DPJ so this is an interesting point you have made. Any thoughts on the prospects for either a lower or upper house reform (both constitutionally "mandated")that has been discussed in various house committees? Or are these an exercise in not looking like they are the courts' decisions?

Jun Okumura said...

“…Komeito seems to have become a voice of reason...this could be something Kan may use - as long, as it seems, he is willing to put up with Komeito using him as a punching bag while they cooperate behind the scenes.”

σ1 (are you a Borg?), you have a way with words.

The pre-Ozawa DPJ was known as long on policy and intelligence, short on politics and smarts. But you don’t have to know that if you take the time to see how the DPJ policy platform has evolved over the years. It’s in plain view, on the DPJ website.

The upper house seems to be in greater need of repair; Japan is not a federation like Australia, the US, or Brazil. In my view, the post-WW II Supreme Court has gradually increased the extent to which it is willing to exercise its prerogatives as a constitutional court and that it has reached the point where, lacking legislative action, it may go one step further and provide a proactive injunction-type of relief, like US courts have historically been willing to do. Incumbents will be well-advised, I think, to preempt any such action with their own, less painful remedy.

Isabella said...

True grit is making a decision and standing by it,doing what must be done.

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