Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, has lived to fight another day by offering to resign as soon as he has placed the country on the road to recovery from the March 11 tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis.
On a day of political drama that presented an unprecedented challenge to his leadership, MPs in the 480-seat lower house of parliament defeated a no-confidence motion against Mr. Kan by 293 votes to 152. Earlier in the day, it appeared that opposition parties were coming close to securing the support of about 80 members of Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) they needed to force him to resign or call a general election.
Though the attempted coup, spearheaded by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and supported by Kan’s DPJ nemeses, was defused after he offered to step down at an as yet unspecified date, experts say the nation may not be impressed.
“I think the nation is aghast at this brazen bun fight at a time when politicians should be earning their money by tackling the tough issues Japan faces. Japanese politics looks like a slow motion train wreck and the crisis will persist,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
In an address to party MPs, Kan insisted he still had work to do overseeing the reconstruction of the ruined northeast coast and bringing the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to a satisfactory conclusion, a process that could continue until at least January.
“The nuclear crisis is ongoing, and I will make my utmost efforts to end it and move forward with post-quake reconstruction work,” said Kan, Japan’s fifth leader in four years. Then, in a thinly veiled rebuke to the political establishment, he suggested it was time the old guard retreated to the shadows once his time is up.
“I would like the younger generation to take over various responsibilities once I have finished fulfilling certain roles as a I work on handling the disaster,” he said.
Kan’s 11th-hour attempt to prolong his political life appears to have worked.
On Thursday evening, his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, a Kan critic who also withdrew his support for the motion, suggested his resignation was imminent. “Waiting until the summer would be too long,” he told NHK television, but he added that he thought Kan’s departure should come after progress was made on a second disaster budget.
The DPJ’s Ichiro Ozawa, a longtime rival with far-reaching influence, indicated he would also abstain from the vote, having earlier threatened to vote with the opposition. Dozens of Ozawa allies followed suit.
But Kan, who succeeded Hatoyama not even a year ago, has his work cut out. The prospects for a grand coalition he attempted to form with the LDP in the weeks after the crisis will remain dim as long as he is in office.
If he is to survive politically, Kan must pass additional emergency budgets to foot a reconstruction bill that the economics minister, Kaoru Yosano, estimated could reach $184 billion.
In a parliament deeply divided along party lines, he will struggle to gain support for a controversial tax rise to fund rising health and welfare costs, and for measures to reduce Japan’s massive public debt, now twice the size of its $5 trillion economy.
Defeat has not dampened the opposition’s determination to make life uncomfortable for Kan. Nobuteru Ishihara, the LDP secretary general, told reporters: “We plan to carry forward while holding a strong belief that the continuation of the Kan government is not good for the country or for the people.
Ishihara said the LDP would block a bill needed to finance a sizable chunk of this year’s $1 trillion budget unless the government abandoned some of its spending commitments.
What the public thinks
Thursday’s parliamentary debacle has fomented further public mistrust in national politicians, whose perceived self-indulgence did not play well with residents and officials in the tsunami-hit region.
"We are in a situation of having to delay the prefectural assembly election because elections cannot be held in our prefecture right now," Miyagi Prefecture’s governor, Yoshihiro Murai, told reporters. "It will be difficult to hold a lower house election, especially in the municipalities along the coast."
The failed insurrection will spell the end of Ozawa’s leadership ambitions, says Mr. Kingston, of Temple University in Tokyo. He accused the main opposition party of holding the country to ransom in its hour of need.
“The no-confidence distraction has exposed the LDP, its leader Tanigaki and Ozawa as incompetent charlatans who should resign if they had a shred of dignity, but they are shameless,” he told the Monitor.
“The LDP is holding the nation, and the disaster victims, hostage to its petty political ambitions and it marks a low point in Japanese politics. The situation looks grim as more policy paralysis and political gridlock will hamper efforts to address Japan's enormous problems," he says.