By Prof K.V. Kesavan
Mr. Yoshihiko Noda has just completed one year as the Prime Minister of Japan. When he assumed office last year, very few thought that he would survive this long. He started his tenure in the midst of several crisis situations. The first and foremost was how to carry a weak and divided Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to face the Japanese Diet where it does not command majority in the Upper House. Even in the Lower House– House of Representatives– where it had a massive majority following the unprecedented victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009, its strength had fallen very steeply following the exit of its former President Mr. Ichiro Ozawa and his followers. The party is badly divided and Mr. Noda cannot consider himself as the most inspiring or popular leader of the party though he has done much better than his two party predecessors.
From the very beginning, Mr. Noda had to pursue conciliatory policies towards opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in order to see that some of the most important legislative measures were passed by the Diet. His weak position was exploited by the LDP which, having enjoyed power for well over fifty years, is waiting in the wings for an opportunity to return to power again. In return for its support to the passing of the legislative bill on increasing the consumption tax, the LDP struck a tough bargain with Mr. Noda who agreed to dissolve the Lower House and opt for fresh election.
But going by the current mood of the DPJ, there is little to show that the party is strong enough to retain its present slender majority in the House if the election is to be held now. Influential leaders within the Party like Mr. Azuma Koshiishi, the Secretary General of the DPJ, have cautioned against an early poll which might seal the fate of the party. Mr. Ozawa has already walked out of the party along with his supporters and his new party is desperately in search of forming a new alignment of parties before the election. Mr. Noda himself will face his party leadership contest on 21 September where he has to convince the weakened DPJ about his re-election as its President.
LDP also in disarray
Fortunately for the ruling DPJ, the opposition Liberal Democrats are also not in a very enviable situation either. In September, the LDP is planning to conduct its Presidential election which will reveal how much clout the present president of the Party, Mr. Tadakazu Tanigaki commands within the party. There are reports that many segments of the party are not keen to rally around his party leadership. Earlier, it was thought that Mr. Tanigaki might get re-elected unanimously, but now many in the party want a contest. Some of the names being mentioned as prospective contestants include even leaders like Mr Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan. A wild scramble among party leaders to capture the Presidency will weaken the LDP and hamper its prospects to perform well in the national election.
As of now, the LDP does not seem to be ready to take on the ruling DPJ whose influence is definitely on a steep downturn. On the contrary, there has been a significant shift in public interest from the so-called traditional political parties to those that highlight the ills that afflict the present Japanese political system. In this context, the rise to prominence of Mr. Toru Hashimoto, the present mayor of Osaka, needs to be noted. A young politician, Mr. Hashimoto has become a popular symbol who appeals particularly to the younger generation and even Mr. Ichiro Ozawa has sought electoral cooperation in the coming national election. But knowing Mr. Ozawa’s past political career, he rightly decided to keep him at a distance.
Most serious challenge
Apart from several economic and diplomatic issues that confront Mr. Noda, the most serious challenge he is being called upon to address relates to the role of nuclear energy in the national energy policy. Right now, Japan is in the midst of formulating a long-term national energy policy. The Fukushima tragedy has highlighted how overdependence on nuclear energy in an earthquake and tsunami-prone Japan has exposed the people to serious risks. The tragedy has also exposed how Japanese power companies colluded with large business houses and government officials to develop a close nexus and formed what is called the “nuclear power village” which went on building nuclear reactors only for producing power without showing much concern for the safety of the people.
When some of the investigating commissions brought to light that the Fukushima tragedy was only “man-made”, the whole nation was rudely shocked. People’s anger and distrust were further heightened when they heard reports that the “nuclear village” had covered up so many accidents in the power plants and even ignored the essentiality of having an impartial regulatory regime. All this led to the closure of all fifty four reactors by May 2012 either due to mandatory tests or breakdowns. Since then there has been a protracted national debate on the question reactivating these reactors.
In order to avoid power shortages in the summer months when the consumption of electricity would increase, the question of at least restarting some of the reactors in the Kansai area was heatedly debated. At the end of this prolonged debate, it was agreed to start only two reactors at Oi plant in Fukui prefecture, but the whole debate brought out the intensity of people’s suspicions about the government’s policies and their deep concern about their own safety.
The resumption of two reactors at the Oi plant was essentially meant to meet the regional demands for power in the summer months, but the larger issue of the role of nuclear energy in the overall national energy policy still remains to be determined. The government decided to hold a series of public hearings across the country at eleven places in mid-July and gave the people three choices for the rate of nuclear energy generation-zero per cent, 15 per cent and 20-25 per cent. After seeing the results of the hearings, the government released an interim summary which indicated people’s high approval rate for the zero per cent choice. It made a statement that the majority of the people want to lessen their dependence on the nuclear energy.
It is also significant to note that about 42 per cent of the Diet members cutting across party lines are also in favour of a nuclear free Japan. Having noted the people’s antipathy to nuclear energy, it is going to be a herculean task for the government to come out with a national energy policy that incorporates a variety of factors including the need for tapping renewable sources of energy, creating a credible regulatory regime and ending the so-called “nuclear village”.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)