I haven`t posted here for a long time, but recently Japanese politics has become too interesting not to comment on; interesting mostly because of the staggering incompetence involved on all sides, but interesting nonetheless.
The current prime minister, Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), will not break the run of five prime ministers who have lasted no longer than a year (a straw poll of this writer`s ten Japanese colleagues found nobody who could remember all five). Following his widely criticized handling of the aftermath of March`s earthquake and tsunami, and his almost total loss of support both inside and outside his own party, he has agreed to resign upon the passing of three bills to do with post-war reconstruction; firstly, a bill to agree on the amount and distribution of reconstruction spending, secondly, a bill to issue bonds in order to fund the reconstruction, and thirdly, a bill to promote alternative energy, reducing the reliance on nuclear energy that has done so much to cause the current crisis. Indeed, it was precisely by offering his resignation as a quid pro quo to obtain Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) support for the reconstruction bills that they had any chance of passing. Anyone who thought that the LDP would refrain from using an unprecedented national emergency to score political gains really should have known better; the extent of their cynicism truly knows no bounds.
As things stand, Kan`s term of office will end tomorrow; the reconstruction bill has already been passed, and the bond issuance and alternative energy bills are negotiating their way through the Diet now. This will allow the DPJ to hold elections on Monday before the parliamentary recession which begins in August.
And my, what a crowded field it is; nine candidates have declared their intention to run, and while it is by no means certain that all of them will gain the necessary 20 votes of support from DPJ members, it seems likely that there will be more candidates than could fit in even the most generously sized family car.
To go through each of the candidates and their policies one by one would be tedious in the extreme, so let us look at the chances of Seiji Maehara, the former foreign secretary and transport minister. In recent polls such as this one, Maehara has come out as the most popular candidate among the public, though of course it is the votes of 398 DPJ members that will count come Monday afternoon. He is known to be hawkish on security policy following his term as foreign secretary, which should count in his favour; even within the nominally left wing DPJ, a hard line towards Japan`s neighbours is de rigueur for the majority. He also fared well before that as transport minister with his ambitious if divisive plan to make Haneda airport into the main hub of Tokyo air travel, which anyone who has experienced the endless journey from Narita to central Tokyo would surely welcome.
Standing against Maehara will be Yoshihiko Noda, the current finance minister. Until two weeks ago, Noda was seen by many as the most promising candidate for the leadership. He is seen as something close to a safe pair of financial hands, and it was thought by many that he would be willing to raise the consumption tax in order to help restore Japanese finances to a more stable footing. This is all the more vital in the face of Moody`s downgrade of Japanese debt, which stands at 228% even before the issuance of reconstruction bonds. Noda might have a better chance than some of the other candidates in tackling the problem. However, he effectively knocked himself out of the contest by committing what must surely be the number one sin when electioneering; mentioning out loud this intention to raise tax. He added to this by committing the number one sin of international relations, when he said that in his view the class A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni in Tokyo weren`t really war criminals; the kind of comment that does not go down well in the governments of Seoul or Beijing.
Maehara will however be hamstrung by the manner of his exit from the foreign ministry. He was forced to resign in March after illegally accepting donations from a foreign national, and you can be sure that if he is elected the LDP will use this fact to stymie any legislation he attempts to pass. Indeed, this threat has already been made by Seko Hiroshige, acting LDP secretary general and candidate for `most inept man on the planet` , who says that Maehara will be grilled during budget committee deliberations.
We cannot finish the discussion, though, without discussing the role of the old schemer Ozawa Ichiro, who still makes Machiavelli look as cunning and cynical as a girl scout troop. Yesterday it was reported that Maehara visited Ozawa to ask for his guidance during the campaign; an interesting move, given that he is the only candidate in favour of upholding Ozawa`s suspension from the party. Are we to assume that Maehara has made a Faustian pact with Ozawa, offering him a party post in return for his and his faction`s cooperation in the election. This would certainly make him the overwhelming favourite in the election, but then he would be left with a post-election landscape in which the LDP try to stymie every move with talk of Maehara`s previous wrongdoing, and Ozawa manipulates within the DPJ to strengthen consolidate his power base with no regard for Maehara`s leadership.
If this is the case, Maehara must surely be wary; perhaps it would be better to lose the election and come back in 2012 than win by making a deal with the devil and having enemies inside and outside the gate, which would surely only result in him becoming the sixth prime minister in succession who resigns after less than a year. Maehara will need outstanding relationships with the media and the public, and a sure hand in dealing with both Ozawa and LDP chicanery to have any chance at all of avoiding this fate. Good luck to him.