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Can the DPJ Government Recover? New Prime Minister Naoto Kan Places His Big Bet That It Can

  • June 14, 2010

After 8 months as deputy prime minister, Naoto Kan has been chosen as Japan's new PM. By acting on his determination to sideline Ichiro Ozawa, the long-time DPJ heavyweight, he has brought about an upsurge in his party's flagging popularity. Now, by exercising strong leadership, a feat his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama failed to achieve, he is trying to lay the foundations for a long-lasting administration.

On June 8, Naoto Kan launched a new administration by naming his cabinet. In the race leading up to his election as head of the Democratic Party of Japan and thus prime minister, he vowed to sideline Ichiro Ozawa, going so far as to say, "It will be best for him to keep quiet for a while, for his own sake, for the sake of the DPJ, and for the sake of governance in this country."

After the resignation of then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Kan was among the first to declare his candidacy for president of the DPJ. His immediate words and actions led to an upsurge in public support for his party, but just as importantly, his stance ensured the support of Seiji Maehara, minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, and of foreign minister Katsuya Okada, and others who have distanced themselves from Ozawa.

A non-Ozawa alliance, at a stroke

Kan has worked quickly to rid his administration of people with close ties to Ozawa. He appointed Yoshito Sengoku as chief cabinet secretary and Yukio Edano to replace Ozawa, who stepped down as secretary-general of the DPJ when Hatoyama resigned.

(photo credit : Natsuki Sakai / AFLO)

Kan's successor as minister of finance is his former deputy, Yoshihiko Noda. Both Noda and Edano had been denied positions of greater influence in the previous administration because they had been openly critical of Ozawa. So it was not surprising that pro-Ozawa members of parliament opposed Edano's appointment to secretary-general of the DPJ, but Kan quashed the resistance.

A mid-level parliamentarian who is anti-Ozawa calls this "nothing less than a bloodless coup." He says somewhat excitedly, "An alliance of factions who wish to be rid of Ozawa was formed because Mr. Kan was willing to take on the challenge."

When a historic electoral upset put the DPJ in power last August, Kan became deputy prime minister, but he has been conspicuously quiet since the beginning of this year. He was clearly deferential to Ozawa, leading people in his party to consider him the newest addition to the pro-Ozawa faction.

There was even speculation that Kan had "teamed up with Ozawa-san in order to seize the post of prime minister," although Kan's recent actions clearly refute such a plot. However, it is not clear that he really intends to confront Ozawa head on. And what of his low profile during the 8-month tenure of the previous administration? Was he lying low while biding his time?

"Mr. Ozawa is a destructive force, someone who will divide the party."

It is more than two years ago now, but I happened to bump into Kan at a bar we both frequented just off the Ginza district of Tokyo. We had met several times before and talked over drinks.

At the time, Ozawa, as president of the DPJ, had tried to engineer a grand alliance with the LDP. The plan failed, and Ozawa offered to resign. Kan had been among those who had urged Ozawa to stay on.

When we met at the bar, the dust had barely settled on this debacle. I asked him why he hadn't allowed Ozawa to resign as party president. His answer: "It's important to keep him confined inside the president's office."

Kan confided that he has been "contemplating for a long time now what it is that really drives this man, Ichiro Ozawa." He also reproached me for not speaking out. "Why doesn't Nikkei BP run a critique of Ozawa?" he pressed.

Kan's assessment of the man was blunt. "Ichiro Ozawa is a destructive force. If we let him out of the party president's office, there is no doubt that he will cause a rift in the party. The post of president is a means to keep him from doing that."

Kan's views on Ozawa have probably not changed now that Kan has become prime minister. What is his strategy then, for containing the risk that Ozawa will divide the party?

There is probably an unspoken understanding that Ozawa will not make his move until after the upper house elections in July. The DPJ has no chance of winning a majority unless it gives the clear impression that Ozawa's influence in the party is a thing of the past. Kan knows this, and Ozawa himself, as a consummate political strategist, must also be aware of it.

In the recent contest to elect a new president for the DPJ, the pro-Ozawa faction moved to nominate their own delegate. However, they could not get anyone but Shinji Tarutoko to run, so they did not even bother to solidify their faction's support for the candidate by requiring all of its members to vote for him.

Rather, the faction allowed its members to vote according to their own preferences. The result was 291 votes for Kan versus 129 for Tarutoko, a wider margin than anyone had anticipated.

This means that some members of Ozawa's faction must have defected. The parliamentarians who voted for Kan must have included protégés of Ozawa who were elected for the first time in last year's lower house election. Spurned by these young party members, whom the press dubbed "Ozawa's children," it must surely now be Ozawa's turn to keep a low profile.

If so, the critical point will come after the upcoming upper house elections. Kan's tenure as party president will end in September, since he was only elected to serve the remainder of Hatoyama's term. The DPJ must hold new elections during that month to select its next president, and there are already whispers from members of Ozawa's group that they intend to field a candidate to contest Kan for the position.

More ominously, Ozawa himself says in a video letter to constituents in his home prefecture, "We must win in the upper house elections and create a stable government. . . . Then, I would like to be at the forefront to do all I can to serve you."

If the DPJ trails badly in the number of seats it wins, there is no doubt that certain factions will try to remove Kan from the position of party president. However, Kan has already shown that he is a fighter.

Kan first became involved in politics as a campaign volunteer for the late suffragist Fusae Ichikawa. He lacked the grass-roots backing, name recognition, and personal wealth that jump start the public service careers of those born into established political families, so when he first ran for the lower house at age 30, he promptly lost. It was only after losing in two more elections that he was finally elected to the lower house at age 33.

As a member of the House of Representatives, he joined the Socialist Democratic Federation, and then New Party Sakigake, both minor parties. He got his break when the LDP formed a coalition government with the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party and New Party Sakigake under Ryutaro Hashimoto's leadership; Kan was appointed minister of health and welfare.

In 1996, he was among the founding members of the Democratic Party of Japan, and was subsequently elected party president. His party joined forces with a breakaway faction of the Shinshinto, or New Frontier Party, and then merged in 2003 with the Liberal Party lead by Ichiro Ozawa.

Rising to the top, thanks to shrewd political instinct

Coalition governments, new political parties, and party mergers―Kan has come through all of these and other deal-making skirmishes. Now that he has climbed the ranks and become prime minister after 30 years, he is unlikely to simply step aside after little more than 3 months.

The only way for his administration to extend its tenure is to solidify its support base and to win a popular mandate. If this government can maintain a high approval rating, it will be difficult for opposing factions to nominate anyone to contest the party's leadership come September, barring an unexpectedly bad showing in the upper house elections.

Kan must know this. But how can he shore up support for his administration?

One cause of the Hatoyama administration's early downfall was the weakness of the prime minister's role. Hirofumi Hirano, then chief cabinet secretary, did not function effectively as head of the administration's command center. As a result, cabinet members were unable to coordinate their efforts as heads of the various ministries.

The DPJ had expressly tried to develop a stronger role for the office of prime minister by establishing a National Strategy Bureau and appointing a minister of state for national strategy, but their authority was never clear, and the lines of command were in constant disarray.

Even on the as-yet-unformulated Strategy for New Growth, it was unclear until the recent cabinet reshuffle whether the person in charge was then national strategy minister Sengoku or then deputy prime minister Kan. Heated spats over the leadership role continued as recently as late April, when the tug-of-war came to a head.

Under Sengoku's direction, Motohisa Furukawa, who was a deputy minister in the Cabinet Office and head of the National Strategy Bureau at the time, tried to move ahead with initiatives spearheaded by the bureau. Kan issued a sharp public rebuke, however, ordering them to "stop making these unauthorized policy decisions and direct the ministries to come up with proposals." The prime minister's office and the bureau were revealed to have been at loggerheads.

Vestiges of this incident appeared to remain when Kan declared, after becoming prime minister, "I would like to appoint people so that the prime minister's office will act as one, the cabinet will act as one, and all members of the party will be empowered to participate."

At issue will be whether the prime minister's office can exercise leadership

The new administration has made noticeable changes in order to strengthen the functions of the prime minister's office. The appointment of Sengoku to chief cabinet secretary and moving Furukawa from the National Strategy Bureau to become Sengoku's deputy will concentrate the capacity to generate new policy initiatives in Kan's inner circle.

On the other hand, Kan's close aide Satoshi Arai has been assigned to replace Sengoku as national strategy minister, while Furukawa's old post as head of the NSB has been taken on by another close associate of Kan, Hideo Hiraoka.

The motive is clearly to draw the NSB into close alignment with the prime minister's office. At the very least, the appointments reflect a resolve to keep the NSB from becoming a gathering place for ambitious types that might foment rebellion.

Kan is also moving quickly to alleviate the criticism that the DPJ lacks a strategy for growth. Initially, a Strategy for New Growth was to be determined by the cabinet on June 15. The idea has been floated, however, of reworking this―incorporating Kan's long-held views―into a new Vision for National Policy to be unveiled at the earliest possible date.

Late last year, when the LDP and others were criticizing the Hatoyama cabinet for lacking a strategy for growth, Kan directed the ministry of economy, trade and industry to produce one in 2 weeks. Kan credits his ability to achieve this to his grasp of policy; this confidence also drives him to address the criticisms directed at his party by those in industry and finance.

Business people reacted sharply against the Hatoyama administration's slogan of "compassion and fraternity," accusing the DPJ of "focusing more on redistribution than on growth, and showing insufficient interest in economic policy."

It was against this groundswell of discontent that the recently-formed Minnanoto, or Your Party, quickly gained popularity by promising to focus on growth. Now, Kan aims to recapture some of that public support by elucidating a vision for growth.

Returning now to Ozawa, can we presume that he will stand aside and watch Kan shore up his position? If a post-Ozawa DPJ becomes a fait accompli, even the "Ozawa children" will drift away from him. Ozawa knows better than anyone that being the party in power exerts a powerful centripetal force that draws people toward it.

What would motivate Ozawa to create a rift in his party, then? I believe that such a coup would take place only if the parliamentarians supporting him were to form an alliance with the LDP and New Komeito to take back power.

At the aforementioned bar, I once played go, a chess-like board game, with Kan. I was much the inferior player, requiring a two-stone head start, but his playing style was aggressive and he relentlessly hemmed me in.

Ozawa is said to be the best go player in politics today. It is highly likely that Kan has challenged him to a game or two, which means that both men know each other's methods of attack. As Kan places the biggest bet yet of his political life, we will all watch the outcome―whether or not he will succeed in hemming Ozawa in.

(Tomoyuki Isoyama, Staff Writer, Nikkei Business)

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