The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Post-Earthquake Politics: A New Paradigm?

April 26, 2011

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 changed everything. The 9.0-magnitude temblor that struck off the coast of the Tohoku and Kanto districts that day caused a devastating tsunami more than 15 meters high that left more than 30,000 dead or missing. The tsunami also triggered a secondary disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which continues to leak nuclear material into the environment as the world looks on in horror. The Tohoku earthquake has plunged the nation into a crisis of immense proportions.

As a result, an extremely volatile political landscape was also transformed, literally overnight. Before the quake, the cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, was assumed to be on its last legs, plagued by dangerously low public approval ratings and persistent legislative gridlock in the Diet. Now it has been granted a reprieve, as rival parties and factions observe an informal truce in order to deal with the national emergency.

The opposition's persistent calls for Kan to dissolve the House of Representatives and call a general election ahead of schedule have been silenced, and prospects for a change in government have receded.

The top priority now is to provide relief to the disaster victims and bring the nuclear crisis in Fukushima under control. This is the ultimate test of Kan's mettle as a leader and a politician. How he handles himself as the nation's top strategist and commander will determine not only his own political destiny but also the fate of Japan.

Unfortunately, Kan has been subject to harsh criticism since the quake for "missteps that a leader just can't make" (an official of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party), including his poorly timed pop inspection of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and his tongue-lashing of officials at Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the facility. Away from the cameras, Kan is said to be moody and apt to shut himself up in his private office. Ill-advised statements by him and his staff have even been blamed for stoking false rumors and unnecessary fears.

Japan can scarcely take time out from the present emergency to choose a new leader. It should be clear that, at least for the moment, it has no choice but to unite under the prime minister's leadership to face this national crisis. But legislative action is needed to deal with the crisis, and the signs are pointing to a dysfunctional legislature.

Although the fiscal 2011 budget passed the Diet on March 29, the ruling and opposition parties remain deadlocked over a government bill to allow the issuance of deficit-covering bonds to fund that budget. The LDP is calling on the government to abandon a set of expensive "handouts," including the controversial child allowance, while the government remains reluctant to renounce pledges made in the DPJ manifesto.

Increasingly the hopes of both the political world and the general public have focused on the idea of a grand coalition, bringing the rival parties together in a unity government to address the national crisis. Unfortunately, prospects for such a coalition receded after Prime Minister Kan—acting unilaterally with no apparent prior consultation—called LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki to request that he join the cabinet as deputy prime minister and state minister in charge of disaster relief, and was rebuffed.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the cabinet and the bureaucrats who are supposed to administer its policies remain strained and awkward in the wake the DPJ government's "misguided" attempts to assert political leadership and bring the bureaucracy into line. With the Kan cabinet running about like a chicken with its head cut off—in stark contrast to the calm, stoical demeanor that has earned the disaster's victims worldwide admiration—the public can scarcely feel reassured about the future, particularly the outcome of the continuing nuclear crisis. As things stand now, they can see no light at the end of the tunnel.

The government is operating in uncharted territory. There is no precedent for dealing with damage on the scale of that caused by earthquake-tsunami of March 11, let alone the nuclear accident this disaster precipitated. Even the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake that devastated Kobe 16 years ago pales in comparison. In a situation where past experience offers so little guidance, our leaders need to set aside the conventional political logic. More and more people are giving voice to the belief that the kind of sweeping reconstruction plan needed to galvanize the nation will require fundamental changes in the relationship between the national government and opposition parties, the Diet, and local governments—in short, a new political paradigm.

Is such a change likely—or even advisable—in the months ahead? In the following I offer a pragmatic analysis predicated on the current political agenda, drawing on interviews with a number of political insiders.

An Acceptable Situation

In the context of political thinking, the central question is always how long the current regime can last—in this case, whether the Kan cabinet, as it stands, can weather the storm.

Around the middle of March, Kan and his fellow DPJ leaders assembled a plan to add three cabinet positions. Meanwhile, Kan himself placed a telephone call to the LDP's Tanigaki to ask him to join the cabinet as deputy prime minister and state minister in charge of the post-quake response. Although there were intimations that such a development might be in the works, Kan made the call on his own initiative and caught not only the LDP but also DPJ executives by surprise.

Appointing the leader of the largest opposition party to a cabinet post is not like asking someone to lend a hand. It would signify a grand coalition between the nation's two largest parties, and any such coalition would naturally require prior agreement on basic policy matters. Yet there is no indication that such policy talks had even begun. Tanigaki's reaction was only natural. "It was so sudden," he explained. "Instead of fiddling around with the government, we should be focusing all our efforts on helping the victims and addressing the nuclear emergency."

That said, Tanigaki has not ruled out the possibility of a grand coalition at some point in the near future. At the end of March, with key legislation moving forward and the fiscal year coming to a close, he said, "We're about to enter a new fiscal year, and there are a lot of things to think about. I'm going to keep evaluating the situation from all angles." Echoing Tanigaki, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada stated that "having a number of parties join the government is also an option."

Within the DPJ leadership there is considerable optimism that the idea of a grand coalition "will eventually become reality" (a DPJ elder). At the same time, many in the DPJ are critical of the clumsy way in which the proposal was floated and agree with the DPJ faction leader who complained to me that Kan "should have listened to what other people had to say." When not only the opposition and the general public but even the DPJ itself recognizes the Kan cabinet's failings, one must conclude that the political establishment as a whole finds the current situation unacceptable.

"Anyone but Kan"

From the standpoint of the LDP and the New Komeito (the other key opposition party), the biggest obstacle to a grand coalition would appear to be Prime Minister Kan himself. Asked whom the LDP would consider acceptable as the leader of such a coalition, a party official working to facilitate an alliance behind the scenes muttered, "Anyone but Kan," implying that a grand coalition would be possible if only Kan were replaced. But how likely is that?

Even supposing that the prime minister were to announce his resignation tomorrow, a replacement would have to be found from within the ranks of the DPJ—the largest party in the Diet. To be sure, when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2000, his successor Yoshiro Mori formed a new cabinet in just three days. But that was made possible by intensive back-room negotiations among a small group of LDP heavyweights. Today's DPJ lacks the capacity for that kind of flexible response—and in any case, Prime Minister Kan is not in a coma. If indeed Kan were to announce his intention to resign, the DPJ would have to begin the succession process by selecting a new DPJ leader in a party election open to all DPJ Diet members. Next, the Diet would have to vote to designate the new DPJ leader as prime minister, and finally the newly designated prime minister would have to form a cabinet. Meanwhile, the DPJ would have to be negotiating the conditions for a coalition with the LDP and the Komeito, since that was the whole point of choosing a new prime minister. Clearly, this is not something to be accomplished in few days. "At a minimum, it would take two weeks from the prime minister's announcement to the inauguration of a new cabinet," said an LDP official, affirming the conventional political wisdom. "We simply don't have the time for that now."

When will we have time? To begin with, "that will depend on the situation in Fukushima" (a government source). Beyond that, the first major hurdle on the political agenda is to draft and pass a supplementary budget for immediate relief and reconstruction efforts. The government is currently at work on an initial post-quake emergency budget estimated at more than 3 trillion yen, which should be ready for submission to the Diet sometime during the second half of April. Assuming that negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties go smoothly, that budget could pass the Diet around the first week in May.

With the first emergency budget in place and the immediate crisis over, Kan might seize the window of opportunity to step down. After all, the bureaucracy should be able to administer short-term quake-relief efforts during the two- or three-week lame-duck period until the new cabinet is appointed. Indeed, some would argue that post-quake efforts would go more smoothly without Kan and his "twisted brand of political leadership" (a top-level administrator). In this scenario, a new cabinet could be inaugurated by the end of May. The problem is that the Group of Eight Summit is scheduled in France on May 26, and launching a new administration in time for the summit would be a tall order. Furthermore, on March 31, during French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Japan, Sarkozy and Kan agreed to meet again at the G8, with the Fukushima nuclear crisis on the agenda.

Other Exit Strategies

The next opportunity for a change in leadership would be the end of the current ordinary session of the Diet, which is scheduled to close on June 22. By summer, the government will have to approve not only the initial supplementary budget, focused on emergency relief measures, but also a second supplementary budget required to launch a full-scale reconstruction plan. If this second budget passes by the end of June—allowing for the possibility of a brief extension—Kan will be in a good position to exit gracefully at that point. Whereas dissolving the House of Representatives and calling a general election would leave an unthinkable political vacuum, a resignation announced at the end of the current Diet session would give the parties a chance to hammer out policies at their party conventions in anticipation of a grand coalition, before coming together to negotiate the terms. A new government could then be launched by the end of July.

The foregoing mental exercise is based the premise that the prime minister will agree to resign. But Kan, who calls himself a political "aberration," has said that he will not step down under any circumstances. And the only way to force him to resign against his will is either for the DPJ to remove him as party leader—which would require a revision of the party rules—or for the lower house to pass a resolution of no confidence against him. Either option would entail the cooperation of the large group of DPJ Diet members surrounding political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, a rival and critic of Kan's.

In fact, the Ozawa group was at work on a strategy for engineering Kan's ouster right up until the recent earthquake. But few DPJ politicians would care to be seen working at cross-purposes with their own leader under the present circumstances. Besides, any move by members of the DPJ to oust Kan in cooperation with the opposition would surely fracture the party and trigger a wholesale realignment of political forces. And if Kan decided to resist, he could still dissolve the Diet and call a general election. In that case a long political vacuum would be inevitable, and the makeup of the new cabinet would be at the mercy of election results. We are back to where we started. As a source inside the Prime Minister's Office asserted, "a grand coalition under Prime Minister Kan is still the most realistic solution for the time being."

But how realistic is it? According to the same source, the reason Kan is so intent on forming a coalition is that "he's hoping it will allow him to stay in power." Yet as of this writing, the LDP's Taniguchi was unwilling to participate in any coalition government led by Kan. Unless Taniguchi has a change of heart, a new coalition seems highly unlikely. After all, in the absence of mutual trust between the leaders of the participating parties, a coalition would be sure to run into policymaking obstacles and lead to even greater chaos than before.

A Practical Alternative

Given the political realities, one is forced to conclude that all the talk of a grand coalition for "a national salvation unity government" is little more than wishful thinking. For the foreseeable future, the only practical course of action for the Kan cabinet is to enlist the cooperation of the LDP and the Komeito on a case-by-case basis, without bringing them into the government. Kan would have to consult with Taniguchi and Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on all key policies, including each major component of the reconstruction plan. The opposition parties would then cooperate to facilitate the prompt implementation of those policies on which agreement had been reached. With such an approach, it should be possible to reach a fairly timely accord on how best to fund reconstruction.

In the end, deferring the task of building a genuine coalition cabinet is probably the only realistic option. When the time comes, the formation of a temporary grand coalition and the selection of a new prime minister will need to be negotiated as a package deal.

Several weeks have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the country entered a new fiscal year on April 1. Around Japan, people are beginning to regain their calm and composure. As of now, the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima plant continues to sow fear and anxiety, but as soon as the radiation leaks are under control, the reconstruction plan will emerge as the top political priority.

Our political leaders must move quickly to lay out a comprehensive strategy and establish their priorities, not only for securing the massive funding required but also for rebuilding stricken areas and preventing another economic recession. A full-fledged debate over the makeup, structure, and leadership of our government will have to come later.

    • Political Journalist
    • Hiroshi Izumi
    • Hiroshi Izumi

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