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.