Originally Published 2011-02-09 00:00:00 Published on Feb 09, 2011
The Democratic Party of Japan ( DPJ ) has been in power for about a year and a half. Despite scoring a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election in August 2009, the ruling party has failed to cash in on this great opportunity.
The DPJ and the Parliamentary Stalemate in Japan
The Democratic Party of Japan ( DPJ ) has been in power for about a year and a half since September 2009. Despite scoring a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election held in August 2009 that gave the party 308 out of the total of 480 seats, it failed to cash in on a great opportunity. The change of power from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the DPJ was indeed considered a political revolution given the monopoly of power enjoyed by the LDP for well over 50 years. But unfortunately, the high expectations of the Japanese electorate were soon belied by the dismal performance of the DPJ. To be sure, the very first policy speech made by the then Prime Minister Mr. Hatoyama Yukio clearly raised a great deal of optimism among the people as to where exactly the new government was headed. He stressed on the need to provide a clean government, reduce the influence of the bureaucracy, transfer power increasingly to the elected representatives, eliminate regional disparities and build a horizontal society based on equity and justice. But these were all tall promises that required a long time to realise. Very soon after assuming power, Hatoyama himself was involved in a financial scandal that seriously affected the image of the new government. But more damaging was the case of DPJ's strong man and its then Secretary Genearl, Ozawa Ichiro, who also grossly violated the laws pertaining to political funds. . Ozawa's case is still continuing, and the person who had worked out the strategy for DPJ's landslide win in August 2009 is now sidelined and faces expulsion from the party itself.

But what really undermined Hatoyama's position was the way he handled the case of the shifting of the Futenma Marine Corps air station in Okinawa. The DPJ in its election manifesto had promised to redefine Japan's security alliance on the basis of "independence and equality". In furtherance of this aim, the DPJ wished to revise the US-Japan agreement signed in May 2006 which clearly stated that the Futenma base would be transferred from its present location in Gionowan to a less congested place in Nago. But what Hatoyama wanted was that the base should be shifted altogether to another place outside the Okinawa islands. Soon Hatoyama understood that the US government was quite firm in sticking to the 2006 agreement and the deadline set by Hatoyama for settling the issue simply could not be met. He also realised that no prefecture in Japan was showing any willingness to host the base. Once Hatoyama yielded to the US on the issue, his position as the prime minister became untenable and he had no alternative but to step down. Hatoyama's bungling of the base issue created a great deal of misgivings in the US on DPJ's basic attitude to the bilateral security partnership. Strong sections in both countries feared that such mutual distrust, particularly in the year when they were commemorating the 50th anniversary of the alliance, was considered very unfortunate.

It was under these circumstances that Mr. Kan Naoto succeeded Hatoyama as Prime Minister. That the DPJ had lost much of its popular support was soon clearly shown in the Upper House election in July 2010 where the party suffered serious setbacks. The ruling DPJ coalition lost its majority in the Upper House and it meant that Mr. Kan would not be able to implement his legislative agenda without making serious compromises with the rival political parties.

Budget Session

The long and crucial budget session has already started accompanied by Prime Minister Kan's policy speech which has touched on a broad range of issues for the government to address. The first and foremost is the question of managing the national economy which has a public debt accounting for 200 % of the country's GNP. The problems created by a shrinking and ageing population have shifted national focus to the need for strengthening the social security measures. The youth in Japan are facing unemployment on an unprecedented scale in recent years. The question of mobilizing resources by raising the consumption tax has been a subject of considerable domestic political controversy and Mr Kan has to make up his mind on it.

On foreign policy, the earlier diplomatic rhetoric on "independence and equality" within the alliance framework has given place to greater realism. The policy speeches made by both Mr. Kan and Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji have only stressed the importance of the alliance as the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy. North Korea's provocative activities as seen in the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents as well as its relentless nuclear and missile programmes have created a deep sense of alarm in the minds of the Japanese people. Similarly, despite Japan's policy of engagement with China, the Japanese Government is very much concerned about Beijing's growing military spending, its expanding naval activities in the East and South China sea regions and its military modernization programmes. The National Defense Program Guidelines issued recently by the DPJ government and the Annual Defense white paper 2010 make clear and categorical references to the security challenges posed by China's growing military strength. As part of its strategy, Japan is now making persistent efforts to strengthen its partnerships with other Asia-Pacific countries like Australia. South Korea, India, and ASEAN.

Will Mr. Kan survive?

The current budget session is going to be a real test for the very survival of Prime Minister Kan. First, he has to get the annual budget as well as budget related bills approved by the Diet. Since the DPJ coalition does not enjoy majority power in the House of Councillors, it will be difficult for Mr. Kan to push the budget related bills. According to the Japanese Constitution, the House of Representatives has superior power in the case of passing the annual budget, but in the case of a budget related ordinary bill, if the upper House rejects it, it has to be endorsed by the Lower House again by a two thirds majority of the members present. Though the DPJ has a commanding majority in the Lower House, it still does not constitute two thirds majority. This actually forces the DPJ to look for support from other parties like the Social Democratic Party (SDP) or the New Komeito which is an ally of the LDP. The SDP was an ally of the DPJ at the time of the 2009 Lower House election, but it was expelled from the coalition due to its differences on the Futenma issue. Even if it is willing to support the DPJ now, it will definitely demand a political price. As for the New Komeito, it has always been with the LDP and there is little reason why it should change its political partner.

The strategy of the main opposition LDP is to prolong the present legislative stalemate and try to force the DPJ to dissolve the Diet and opt for a general election. The LDP believes that political tide has turned in its favour as has been shown in the sharp fall in the approval ratings for the ruling DPJ coalition. Further, the LDP also believes that the Ozawa factor within the DPJ is bound to stir up serious differences that would further weaken the party.

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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