Tokyo Notes

Kan Shouldn’t Ditch Sengoku

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Tokyo Notes

Kan Shouldn’t Ditch Sengoku

By keeping his right-hand man in the Cabinet, Kan can send a strong message that he won’t be blackmailed.

In a game of chess, ensnaring the queen will typically lead to the eventual checkmating of the king. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party is apparently using a similar approach in singling out government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku as the most powerful piece in the Cabinet, and is closing in on him in a bid to skewer Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The LDP targeted Sengoku with a non-binding censure motion that passed the opposition-controlled upper house in November, and is now threatening to boycott debate in the upcoming ordinary Diet session if Kan doesn't sacrifice his right-hand man.

The LDP says it wants Sengoku's head over his perceived botched handling of the now infamous collision between Japanese patrol ships and a Chinese fishing vessel last year. But the move whiffs of politicking — Sengoku is known to have Kan's ear and is seen by some as pulling the strings of government.

Kan now has to work out the best way to get out of check.

He could resign himself to that fact he needs to enter dialogue with his political foes to pass legislation (the ruling parties are unable to override 'No' votes in the upper house as they don't have a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber). This would probably involve bumping Sengoku out of the Cabinet into a senior post in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, likely as (the confusingly titled) acting DPJ president, and bringing new faces into the Cabinet. Reports suggest a reshuffle could be made after the party's annual convention on January 13.

This, however, would simply be kowtowing to the opposition’s opportunism, and would do nothing to bolster Kan's media-portrayed image as an emasculated leader. It also would deprive the government of one of its most intelligent and influential figures.

Kan could play a more prudent gambit of keeping all his current pieces in play to counter the opposition's relentless attacks. This would send a strong message that he refuses to be blackmailed by his adversaries (and who is to say that they won’t try the same tactic again against other ministers, or even the prime minister himself?)

Under such a scenario, the LDP would likely follow through with their threat to boycott discussions. But this could actually work against the main opposition party. As the Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial Friday, the opposition could play a smarter game.

'There was some justification for the opposition tactics of boycotting Diet deliberations while the Liberal Democratic Party's monopoly on power remained firmly entrenched, with the opposition parties having few effective means to fight against the powerful ruling party,' the nation's second largest daily said. 'Instead of boycotting sessions, the opposition parties should use their bargaining power for pressing the ruling bloc to accept their demands, such as revisions to the budget and other bills, through deliberations.'

The editorial went on to argue that this would be unlikely as it was the DPJ that set the precedent for using the tactic of censure motions to force ministerial resignations.

But with the Diet in stalemate, the LDP would eventually have to relent or risk dropping further down the political popularity ladder over its negative tactics. Kan should therefore play patiently, and steadily augment his position.

By keeping Sengoku on board, Kan would also be able to cast his nemesis, former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, as an increasingly isolated pawn in the party.