POLITICS: Japan voters give rulers a yellow card


A yellow card for Japan’s government

TOKYO – For the second time in a year, Japanese voters, who are long known for their political apathy, have voted against their rulers. 

On Sunday night, voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which lost momentum in the poll for the Upper House of the Diet, after being mired in funding scandals, the resignations of leaders and the inability of the party to carry out its manifesto for reform. Last September, voters threw out the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the conservative warhorses who cemented their rule of Japan over five decades while messing up millions of pensions and running up the highest debt per capita in the industrialized world. 

Though it still holds a majority in the more powerful Lower House, the DPJ won only 44 seats in the Upper House, down from 54, as voters showed displeasure over the Okinawa military base issue, and talk about potential tax raises. Justice Minister Keiko Chiba was among the DPJ lawmakers to lose their seats. Japanese media projections showed the ruling party would hold only 110 out of 242 seats in the Upper House, meaning it will require the support of other parties to pass bills that enact its bold vision for change. Half of the seats in the Upper House were up for grabs in Sunday’s vote. 

Only a month after becoming prime minister, Naoto Kan, 63, is already facing the type of criticism that has sunk five prime ministers in the past four years. “The results were far from what we sought,” Kan said. “One major reason was that my remarks on the consumption tax left an abrupt impression to the public and my explanation was insufficient.” 

Chief cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku said on Monday Kan was unlikely to reshuffle his cabinet until September, when a party leadership convention is scheduled. While Kan said he wouldn’t step down, his honeymoon phase with the electorate appears to be over. Since taking over from Yukio Hatoyama in June, Kan’s popularity ratings have been dropping fast. The election also marked the return of conservative politicians from the former government that was ousted in a landslide victory in September. The LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the past five decades, did better than most expectations, winning 51 seats. Your Party, formed by politicians who recently split from the LDP, won 10 seats. 

Gerald Curtis, a professor at Columbia University in New York and a longtime expert on Japanese politics, said it was a defeat for the DPJ more than a win for the LDP. “The public don’t have confidence in how the DPJ are governing. Kan had a chance to get the voters’ minds off the disastrous performance of [former DPJ leaders] Hatoyama and [Ichiro] Ozawa. But he blew it on his statements about consumption taxes. The public is not stupid. They listened to this and said ‘What is he talking about’?” 

An editorial in the conservative Yomiuri newspaper said, “The biggest reason for the defeat of the Democratic Party was Prime Minister Kan’s handling of the consumer tax issue.” 

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo on Monday afternoon, Curtis also cautioned that the election was not a victory for the LDP. “The danger is the LDP will think they won. You’ll see less pressure to modernize the party and bring in new leadership, because leaders will be able to claim victory.” 

Trying to put a good face on the results, Kan said he viewed the election as a “starting point” for his push for a more responsible government sensitive to the needs of the public. He said he would also pursue more ”policy-based” alliances with other parties. 

Many analysts, however, are questioning whether other parties will want to join Kan’s administration. The leader of one partner, the People’s New Party, has already quit the coalition over postal service reform, and the party also lost all three seats up for re-election, cutting its strength in the chamber by half. Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan, raised the possibility that the DPJ and LDP could join hands. “Kan has rejected all his coalition partners. The only possible partner now is the LDP. There is no fundamental ideological difference in the two main parties.” 

Curtis, however, predicted there would be no grand coalition this time. “Why join a party that’s in decline? With 44 seats, no one’s going to jump on a sinking ship.” He said Your Party would act like Republicans in the US who oppose President Barack Obama on everything to make life tough for the government. Curtis said the election had returned Japan to the paralysis and gridlock of the past few years. “You cannot pass a budget now in this political environment. You’ll have weak and unstable government. While the world changes fast, the Japanese government will change very slowly.” 

Japan has seen prices decline for the past 12 years, and the Nikkei stock average has also dropped 8.9% this year. Kan last month released plans to boost the world’s second-largest economy by lowering the corporate tax rate from as high as 40% while balancing the budget in 10 years. Japan’s biggest business lobby, Keidanren, asked all parties to work together to boost the economy and the nation’s finances. “Policy implementation shouldn’t be stagnated because of the divided parliament,” Hiromasa Yonekura, head of the Japan Business Federation, said in a statement. 

After promising to shift spending from public works to households, the DPJ has passed legislation to eliminate public high school fees and give families a monthly stipend of 13,000 yen ($147) per child. Despite their losses, the DPJ did celebrate the election of two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Ryoko Tani, 34, who still plans to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. 

The government, however, does appear to be losing favor with the public. Earlier this year, Kan floated the idea of raising the current 5% consumption tax to 10% or more to avoid a financial collapse, and then said he wouldn’t decide on the issue until three years later, when Lower House elections are due. 

A few weeks after taking office, Kan called the Upper House elections for July 11, the same day as the World Cup final of football, which has become Japan’s favorite sport, prompting about 10 million voters to cast ballots in advance. Kan didn’t go on TV to comment on the election until well after midnight. “Japan’s political culture has changed,” said Curtis. “Voters want strong leaders, but the leaders are not strong.” Junichiro Koizumi was a strong leader and stayed in office for five years, but too many politicians since are still using out-dated canvassing methods of going around streets in trucks with loudspeakers, Curtis said. Leaders should go out and talk to citizens more often, because the “political machine doesn’t get votes like it used to”. 

Shiratori said Kan made the mistake of not appearing humble before the Japanese public. He cited a Japanese proverb: when the rice plant has a good crop, we harvest. “When the head is heavy [on a rice plant or politician], it will bow lower and lower,” he said. 
Kan mistakenly thought the tax issue could unify the split within his party, he said. “He thought this topic would be a good agenda to smash out the [issues] of money in politics and the Okinawa Futenma base issue. To a certain degree, he was successful. But Japanese people do not love leaders who fail to show modesty.” 

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