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Japan: Kan Naoto’s Political Skills Under Test – Analysis

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By Rajaram Panda

Japan’s Prime Minister Kan Naoto has come under intense pressure to resign for his poor handling of the mega-disaster and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant crisis. This is unfortunate for no prime minister could have escaped criticism in handling a crisis of such proportions, and Kan is no exception. At this critical time, Kan needs support and not criticism. Unfortunately, politics in a democracy is a different ball game. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) heavyweight, Ozawa Ichiro, has issued a document, which indicates that many members of the ruling DPJ are still loyal to him and that they have joined the Ozawa bogey to criticise Kan and thus appease the frustrated voters.

Where did Kan err? Kan is being criticised for his government’s slow response to the crisis, which made the disaster worse. The statement issued by Ozawa said: “No signs of Prime Minister Kan’s leadership are seen in the measures that the irresponsible administration is taking, and the damage from the disaster may further spread.”

Kan’s leadership qualities have come under fire. He is accused of surrounding himself with newly-appointed aides and advisors and sidelined bureaucrats, thereby creating confusion in the administration. His top-down leadership style came under criticism when Kan flew by helicopter to the Fukushima complex on March 12 to personally assess the growing crisis,. For this, he was accused of interfering with recovery efforts. Some suggested that Kan’s arrival in a helicopter, delayed the crucial venting work at the plant.

Regarding the Fukushima nuclear plant imbroglio, Kan allegedly made controversial remarks that evacuees from around the Fukushima No.1 plant “will not be able to return for 10 to 20 years.” Such a claim was actually made by Matsumoto Kenichi, an advisor to the Kan administration, who cited Kan as saying that he [Kan] was considering developing an environmentally friendly town in an inland area for about 50,000 to 100,000 people “in case residents need to leave their homes” near the Fukushima No.1 nuclear complex. Kan denied the claim, clarifying that he only said that his government is resolved to achieve the “earliest possible solution” to the question of evacuations. Complicating the matter for Kan, Michio Furukawa, the Mayor of Kawamatamachi, a town within the expanded evacuation zone, remained unconvinced by Kan’s denial and said Kan’s statement was “outrageous”. Close aides of Kan actively defended him and said Matsumoto should bear the blame for misquoting the prime minister.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan

Despite the clarifications issued, the perception that Kan had made the remark remained. A senior lawmaker, close to party heavyweight and Kan rival Ozawa, said: “The prime minister just doesn’t understand how disaster victims feel, and I want him to quit after the first supplementary budget for fiscal 2011 (for disaster relief programs) becomes law.”

The opposition camp has been more aggressive with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Sadakazu Tanigaki saying, “The time has come for the prime minister to consider his resignation.” He continued, “To keep going under the current leadership would be very unfortunate for the Japanese people.” LDP legislator and a former Finance Minister Bunmei Ibuki said, “The existence itself of the Kan Cabinet is a massive disaster (for the country).” Ibuki claimed that some DPJ legislators have asked the LDP “to help topple the Kan administration.” The feuds within the country’s political system, even at this critical time, demonstrates that the foundations of the government have remained shaky for the 20 months since the DPJ swept into power in August 2009.

Kan was already in political trouble before the earthquake and tsunami. He had been accused of accepting political donations from a foreigner in violation of local laws. Consequently, the Diet had experienced a gridlock with important budget bills blocked because of these accusations. Kan had claimed his innocence, saying that he did not know that the donor in question was a foreigner. At a time when the opposition lawmakers were grilling Kan over the donation allegations, the earthquake struck, giving Kan a fresh lease of political life. The opposition rallied around Kan to address the national crisis. The uneasy political truce forged after the earthquake and the tsunami seems to have ended as abruptly as it was reached. Kan’s popularity buoyed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, but now seems sliding.

Kan is also being accused of avoiding the public. The huge defeat in the first half of the nation-wide local elections held on April 10, 2011, indicated the public’s mistrust with Kan’s government. The DPJ lost two races for governor to candidates backed by the LDP. Ishihara Shintaro, an independent backed by the LDP, was re-elected to a fourth term as the governor of Tokyo. In the Prefectural Assembly elections, the Democrats won only 346 seats, compared with the LDP’s 1,119. Ishihara’s son, Nobuteru Ishihara, also a LDP member, expressed his doubts over Kan’s ability to handle a national crisis.

However, the passing a no-confidence motion against Kan, either by the dissident DPJ faction led by Ozawa or by the opposition LDP, is unlikely. Though, it would be a wake-up call for Kan, Ozawa, himself is under indictment for alleged funds misreporting and has lost much of his political clout. Moreover, the DPJ-led coalition has 311 seats in the Lower House, far more than the majority of 239. If a no-confidence motion were to be passed, as many as 70 to 80 DPJ members of the Lower House must support the Opposition. This is not likely to happen. The Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, seems unnerved and is determined to handle the crisis while listening to the voices of the party’s critics.

If the political infighting continues, Japan will be left rudderless and the gigantic task of reconstruction will get complicated. It is unfortunate that Japan is undergoing a prolonged period of political paralysis with five prime ministers ruling Japan in the past five years. The nation needs at this difficult time a strong leader. If the government ignores the lessons learnt from past major disasters like the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, it could end up with an unworkable plan. On the other hand, if it relies too much on past experience, it would not be able to respond to the present unprecedented disaster.

The triple disaster has badly shaken the foundation of Japan’s political culture. The DPJ, with support from the opposition, needs to shape a new vision for Japan’s future along with the post-quake rebuilding plans for eastern Japan. What Japan needs is a strong political leader who can craft an imaginative and powerful plan for the country’s rebirth. Kan has an historic opportunity in front of him, provided by the natural disaster. Will he rise to the occasion?

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/KanNaotosPoliticalSkillsUnderTest_rpanda_200411

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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