Tokyo Notes

Kan Needs to Attack LDP

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Tokyo Notes

Kan Needs to Attack LDP

Japan’s embattled prime minister should remind voters why they booted out the last lot.

The summer of 2009 saw the fall of a regime in Japan. After decades of virtually unbroken postwar rule, the Liberal Democratic Party was toppled and a new era of two-party politics was ushered in. But the old guard now seem to be wheedling their way back into power—and all the public can do is shrug.

The electorate’s apathy is understandable. In just under a year and a half in power, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is on to its second leader; has lost control of the upper chamber of parliament; has seen its electoral mastermind indicted; has failed to deliver on manifesto pledges; and is now struggling to pass key budget-related legislation.

With the opposition controlling the upper house, the DPJ needs a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber to pass these bills—one of which is required to approve a bond issuance to cover nearly half the fiscal 2011 budget (such is the parlous state of the nation’s finances).

So Prime Minister Naoto Kan is clambering for support from smaller opposition parties. But Komeito, the political front of a Buddhist movement, has spurned Kan’s approaches, while the Social Democratic Party, a former coalition partner, seems disinterested (six SDP votes would have given the DPJ its super-majority). Meanwhile, 16 lower house lawmakers indebted for their election to Ichiro Ozawa, the ostracized (and now indicted) former party leader, announced last week that they would form a splinter group. They’ll remain as party members, but will vote of their own accord—and likely against the government on the budget bills, given their ostensible gripe over failed manifesto pledges.

So Kan is in a pickle. The LDP is hammering away relentlessly for a general election, and is considering a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet (an overused practice the DPJ was also guilty of turning to in opposition). Nobuteru Ishihara, the LDP's belligerent No. 2, said Saturday the party wouldn’t support the budget bills even if Kan stood down.

Some regional lawmakers, fearing for their jobs in nationwide local elections in April, have also called for Kan’s head, with Koichiro Gemba, the DPJ’s policy chief, even apologizing to them for the DPJ’s internal strife and lack of public support.

A recent Asahi Shimbun poll shows half the electorate wants Kan to step down. Add in the Ozawa factor, and the prime minister looks doomed. But Kan should remember that he's still the boss. 

For a start, he’s moving Japan closer to free trade deals than any other government in recent history, and has rightly advocated (in one of the budget bills) a cut to one of the world’s highest corporation tax rates. As for the breaking of manifesto pledges, his government’s decision not to give families the full promised rate of child allowance, and the potential scrapping of a toll-free motorway programme, are pragmatic approaches to a serious budget deficit problem. And it should be remembered that it was the LDP that saddled the nation with this debt in the first place.

In power, the LDP was riddled with corruption and factional strife. Even as it claims to be a party reborn, it has failed to come up with any concrete policies. A senior LDP official recently said that ‘the LDP doesn't need to clarify its stance on such a politically divisive issue as the (Trans-Pacific Partnership.)' Such statements undermine its assertions that it has changed under the leadership of Sadakazu Tanigaki.

But more pertinently, the nation’s debt stems from a combination of a greying society and the LDP’s long years of pork-barreled vote buying. It's therefore strange that Kan is yet to play the blame card.

He could take a leaf out of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s book. British ministers have been quick to agree that their current austerity measures stem entirely from the previous Labour government’s 'irresponsible' handling of the economy. Disregarding the global financial crisis, Cameron uses this line relentlessly—and many voters buy into it.

While the previous British government was in power for 13 years, the LDP was in power for much of the second half of the last century. Kan knows the LDP botched the job, but he needs to ram this fact home to a demoralized electorate. Failure to do so could see the return of an unloved regime and one-party democracy.