Originally Published 2011-08-31 00:00:00 Published on Aug 31, 2011
New Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, known for his low profile political career, is now being called upon to manage his party (Democratic Party of Japan) that is driven more by internal power struggle than policies per se.
Challenges before Japan's New Prime Minister
It was exactly two years ago in August 2009 that the Democratic Party of Japan ( DPJ ), taking advantage of the rapidly declining popularity of the ruling LiberaL-Demoratic Party ( LDP ) led coalition due to its own involvement in corrupt practices, scored a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election. The massive victory of the DPJ was hailed as a historical turning point in the post-War Japanese politics. It was indeed a significant moment as the monopoly of power enjoyed by the LDP for well over 50 years with a short gap during 1993-94 came to an end. But few would have thought that the DPJ would soon be facing formidable challenges. Even before completing barely two years in office, there have been three Prime Ministers, including the latest incumbent Yoshihiko Noda. The real challenge to the Party has come from within. It is too badly divided to project itself as one which means business and wants to implement the tall promises contained in the election manifesto of 2009.

No sooner had Yukio Hatoyama taken over as Prime Minister in September 2009 than a serious controversy involving him in irregular political funding plunged the party in utter confusion. In addition, his handling of the Futenma air base issue damaged the people's confidence in the ability of the DPJ to manage the US-Japan security alliance skillfully in its golden jubilee year. Further, the political manipulations practised by the party's strong man and the then Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa divided the party badly and his protracted battle with the legal authorities on questionable land purchases brought disrepute to the party. When Naoto Kan replaced Hatoyama as the Prime Minister, the DPJ was a divided house losing consistently popular support as shown by several opinion surveys. This was more than reflected in the defeat it suffered in the House of Councillors election held in July 2010. With the estrangement of Ozawa who commanded about 120 Diet members and the loss of the Upper House election, Prime Minister Kan's ability to push through legislative bills was greatly constrained.

The March 11 earthquake accompanied by the tsunami and nuclear catastrophe in a way sealed the fate of Mr. Kan. Though he made sincere efforts to handle the situation, popular perception was that he was no match for the herculean task that faced the situation. Many people even imputed motives to Mr. Kan that he was using the March 11 catastrophe to prolong his stay in office. Unable to measure up to the demands of the catastrophic situation, Mr Kan had to step down and paved the way for a fresh election to the party presidency.

Power struggle within the DPJ: Unfortunately, the ensuing election was contested not on the basis of policy issues, but on the consideration of the fierce struggle going on between the mainstream and anti-mainstream groups within the party. Uppermost in the minds of the former groups was how to keep the influence of Ichiro Ozawa under strict control. On the contrary, Ozawa and the Hatoyama group want to wrest power from the ruling groups. Strangely, though five candidates contested in the Presidential election, only three of them were taken seriously-Seiji Maehara, Yoshihiko Noda and Banri Kaieda. Initially, Maehara was projected by the media as the most probable candidate to make it to Presidency. He was eager to contest as he thought that his mainstream colleague Noda would not be able to defeat Kaieda who was backed by Ozawa and Hatoyama. Maehara was known for his anti-Ozawa postures from the beginning. In the initial counting, none of the five candidates were able to obtain a majority of total 398 votes. Surprisingly, Kaieda polled 143 votes followed by Noda with 102 votes and Maehara with only 74. In the run-off vote, Noda was able to make it with the support of Maehara's supporters. The entire exercise was scripted with a view to excluding the influence of Ozawa who still enjoys the support of about 120 legislators, by far the largest group within the party.

Noda and his tasks: Noda , the new Prime Minister is only 54 in age and does not make any claim to any spectacular political achievements in the past. Entering the Lower House for the first time in 1993, Noda has served as Chairman of the Diet Affairs Committee and Finance Minister. Known for his low profile political career, he is now being called upon to manage a party that is driven more by internal power struggle than policies per se. Identified with the mainstream group led by Kan and Katsuya Okada, he has to display his political skills to handle Ozawa and his influential group. Secondly, as former Finance Minister, he knows that the economy has to recover from the prolonged stagnation. Thirdly, his government has to undertake elaborate measures to address the challenges posed by the March 11 tsunami, earthquake and the nuclear disaster. How to rehabilitate the people who have been affected by the nuclear disaster still remains a challenge for the government. Fourthly, Noda has to formulate an effective policy to stop China from intruding into the territorial waters in around the Senkaku Islands. It is even reported that China showed considerable interest in the current DPJ election as it was very anxious to have someone as Japanese Prime Minister with friendly feelings towards China. Perhaps it wanted to have a candidate endorsed by Ozawa who has many friends in China.

(Prof. K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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