Tokyo Notes

Kan for Japan?

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Tokyo Notes

Kan for Japan?

Of all the likely replacements for Hatoyama, it looks like one Naoto Kan stands in the lead.

While outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama might be berated for his failure to deliver on his promises and for his sometimes chaotic leadership of the party, he has at least done whoever takes over from him a couple of favors.

In essentially going back to the 2006 Futenma air base relocation deal, Hatoyama has removed the biggest immediate hurdle that would have faced his replacement. While acknowledging that the deal is not ideal in any way, shape or form, the new DPJ leader will at least be able to claim fait accompli regarding the location, even if a lot of details about the actual construction have yet to be agreed. The Futenma damage has been done, and now is an opportunity for the DPJ to clearly lay the blame on Hatoyama rather than the party, which itself did not promise to relocate the base outside of Okinawa.

Perhaps more significantly, though, Hatoyama managed to convince DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa to stand down at the same time as him in the interests of cleaning up the party, since both politicians were linked to scandals involving their funding organizations. That has made the DPJ a cleaner party in one fell swoop, while also weakening to some extent Ozawa’s ability to directly meddle in the running of the party and the government, although it is hardly likely to stop him.

The three most likely candidates for taking the helm of the DPJ on Friday are all former DPJ leaders: Finance Minister Naoto Kan, Construction and Transport Minister Seiji Maehara and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada.

Of the three, Kan is already being strongly tipped as the frontrunner and as of Thursday morning is the only one so far to declare his candidacy. As a veteran party heavyweight and founding member of the Democratic Party of Japan he could keep the party united as opposed to the other candidates who are more strongly associated with groups within the DPJ. Media reports this morning suggested there were moves afoot in the party to ensure that Kan would be the only candidate, although most of the dailies suggested the key point was whether Kan would seek the backing of Ozawa supporters—the biggest group in the party—or keep a distance from them. The argument goes that with the explicit backing of the Ozawa group, Kan would be more likely to face a rival candidate.

Kanhas name recognition and a positive reputation from his time as health minister in the mid 1990s when he did the unthinkable and exposed the ministry’s failure to stop the use of HIV-tainted blood products. A politician who stands up to bureaucrats looks good for a DPJ that wants to shift power away from them. But Kan’s reputation took a nosedive when he was forced to resign as DPJ leader in 2004 after it came to light that he had failed to make pension payments despite having strongly criticized Liberal Democratic Party members for the same transgression.

As finance minister in the Hatoyama cabinet, Kan has talked about raising the consumption tax to help fill the gaping hole in Japan’s finances, cajoled the Bank of Japan into ‘doing something’ about deflation, and even talked about weakening the yen. But while his veteran status and assertive air make him a good short-term choice with an upper house election just weeks away, he’s a former leader who has already failed to lead the party to success during two previous stints.

Maehara, who supports economic reforms, the reining in of the budget deficit and a more robust security role for Japan, has been the most vocal in criticizing Hatoyama, Ozawa and the veteran contingent of the party. As the youngest of the three likely candidates he would represent the cleanest break in party leadership. But this also makes him the most likely to be blocked by supporters of Ozawa within the DPJ, who would be far more likely to back Kan.

Japan’s biggest daily, The Yomiuri Shimbun said in its Thursday edition that Maehara had made it clear to Kan on Wednesday that the elimination of Ozawa’s influence and the respecting of the latest Futenma air base deal were requisite conditions if he were to throw his support behind Kan.

As for Okada, he has already been a successful head of the DPJ in an upper house election, leading the party to a victory of sorts in the 2004 poll, before being decimated by the LDP in the general election the following year when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went postal and took on his own party as well as the opposition with an audacious snap election of brinkmanship. Okada has a clean image and is against all forms of ‘amakudari’ favorable job placements for former bureaucrats. He favors economic reforms and is one of the main advocates of the DPJ’s 25 percent CO2 reduction policy. But his involvement in the decision to go back to the original Futenma relocation site in Okinawa would make it difficult for the party to move on from the mess created by Hatoyama.

National Strategy Minister Yoshito Sengoku had been seen as a potential candidate, but he ruled himself out on Wednesday. In addition to Okada and Maehara, Internal Affairs Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi might mount a challenge and should Maehara not stand, the possibility might increase of a bid by Administrative Reform Minister Yukio Edano, who has won plaudits for his efforts to grill bureaucrats over wasteful spending. But media reports suggested Edano was already thinking of backing Kan so long as a clear line could be drawn under the money and politics scandals involving DPJ senior figures.