from Asia Unbound

Prime Minister Kan Prevails

June 2, 2011

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Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan (R) walks past lawmakers to cast a vote against the opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion in parliament in Tokyo June 2, 2011. Kan survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday, but the unpopular leader will still struggle to break a policy deadlock given a split in his own party and a divided parliament.
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan (R) walks past lawmakers to cast a vote against the opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion in parliament in Tokyo June 2, 2011. Kan survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday, but the unpopular leader will still struggle to break a policy deadlock given a split in his own party and a divided parliament. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Courtesy Reuters)

After a nerve-wracking 24 hours, Japan’s prime minister persuaded his party to hold together in the face of an opposition party challenge. By a vote of 152–293, the opposition gambit to bring Japan’s prime minister down was defeated.    

The Japanese public response to the no-confidence vote, however, was disgust and anger. Media coverage of the evacuation centers during the Diet vote showed relief and applause when the final vote was tallied. Local municipal and prefecture leaders bluntly expressed their dismay over Tokyo’s politics, and asked their national government to focus instead on bringing aid to their communities.Prior to the vote, Kan met with DPJ members in an open session and appealed to the serious situation confronting Japan. He acknowledged repeatedly in his speech the “inadequacies” of his leadership, and addressed head on the complaints about his government’s response to the March 11 disaster.

The prime minister promised his party three things. First, he would not destroy the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Second, he would not hand over the government to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. Third, he would complete the critical task of planning national recovery from the crises of March 11—including the resolution of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant—and outline a supplementary budget to implement the plan.

Kan effectively deflected this attack on his government. But media comments by opposition party leaders who initiated the no-confidence vote suggest they will continue to try to weaken him.   

Within the DPJ, it remains to be seen what will come of those who skipped today’s vote, including Ichiro Ozawa. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama seems to believe he got a promise that Kan would step down in June, but DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada says there was no such agreement on the timing of the prime minister’s resignation. The DPJ’s internal balance of power remains as fragile as ever. Time may be ripe for a parting of ways with the Ozawa group.

Kan announced that he would turn over the reins of leadership to the DPJ’s next generation when the current crisis has been to a certain degree resolved. Reconstruction planning will be the basis of a new law, and the government draft is expected before this current parliamentary session ends in June. Passing a supplementary budget to cover the costs of Japan’s recovery plan will be the next opportunity for the opposition to try to dislodge him from power.    

Kan stopped short of saying when he would step down. Given public anger at the no-confidence vote, he would be wise to remove any opportunity for this kind of political maneuvering to resurface. As prime minister he has the option of extending the Diet session through the year. This would remove the possibility for opposition parties to block the budget making process. It would have the added benefit of demonstrating to the Japanese people that their politicians are working hard to accomplish Japan’s recovery.

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