Saturday, June 5, 2010

Change of Guard in Japan: Naoto Kan Elected Prime Minister

Naoto Kan, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader, was voted in as the country's new prime minister on 4 June, with his Cabinet to be launched early next week roughly one month out from an expected upper house election. Both upper and lower houses of parliament separately as elected Kan as the new premier in a majority vote, replacing Yukio Hatoyama, who abruptly announced his resignation on 2 June, only about eight months after sweeping to power.

Introduction to Kan
The 63-year-old Kan, who was deputy prime minister and finance minister in the Hatoyama Cabinet, became Japan's 94th leader, at a time when the country is struggling with a two-decade-old economic slump and filled with public mistrust in politics. Kan, the fifth prime minister since 2006, intends to launch a new Cabinet on 8 June.

According to a senior DPJ lawmaker, Kan is planning to name Yoshito Sengoku, who was state minister in charge of designing national strategy, as the government's top spokesman. Kan agreed with the DPJ's small coalition partner, the People's New Party, that the two will continue to form a government together.

Kan is Japan's first prime minister in 14 years who was not born into a long-established political family, unlike many of his immediate predecessors, including Hatoyama and Taro Aso, whose grandfathers were also prime ministers.

The fact that Kan is not a hereditary politician will likely help increase his party's popularity, as many voters are tired of seeing prime ministers who hail from elite families resigning one after another. But the leadership change is unlikely to lead to a major shift in Japan's economic and foreign policies.

Kan has said he will continue the unfinished work of Hatoyama, while doing his utmost to restore public confidence in the DPJ ahead of the House of Councillors election expected in July.
Kan said his first job as prime minister would be to ''rebuild the country,'' in a speech following his 291-to-129 victory in a DPJ presidential election earlier in the day over sole contender Shinji Tarutoko, a less well-known DPJ lower house member who called for ''a generational change'' in party leadership. He also called for unity within the ruling party in the run-up to the upper house election.

Previous Cabinet's Unpopularity
Attention is focused on to what extent Kan, an activist-turned politician, will be able to lessen the influence of Ichiro Ozawa, the outgoing DPJ secretary general, when he runs the government. One of the major reasons for the previous Cabinet's unpopularity was money scandals associated with Ozawa, regarded as the most powerful figure in the DPJ, who has decided to resign with Hatoyama.

Many of those who supported Tarutoko in the election are affiliated politically with Ozawa, who heads an interparty group of about 150 lawmakers, by far the biggest in the ruling party.
The decision to pick Sengoku, who is known to be critical of Ozawa, as chief Cabinet secretary suggests that Kan is trying to create an image that the new government is distancing itself from the kingmaker.

Hatoyama and his entire Cabinet stepped down together in the morning, ahead of the Diet's vote on the new leader in the afternoon, after floundering in public opinion polls, caused by his mishandling of where to relocate a key US military base in Okinawa Prefecture and money scandals.

The Hatoyama Cabinet was formed after the DPJ's landslide victory in last summer's House of Representatives election, which ended more than half a century of almost continuous rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

But Hatoyama decided to resign because of growing concerns about the potential loss of many DPJ seats in the forthcoming upper house election. If all goes smoothly, Kan will deliver his policy speech and take questions from ruling and opposition party representatives in the Diet soon.

Officially, Kan will assume the premiership upon an appointment ceremony at the Imperial Palace, and until then Hatoyama will continue serving as premier. The schedule for the ceremony has not been decided, yet.

Challenges Ahead
As the country's sixth prime minister since 2006, Kan has to ensure his party's success in upper house elections scheduled in mid-July so as to guarantee the smooth passage of bills. During Hatoyama's eight-month tenure, the DPJ had to woo a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Japan New Party to assure a majority in the upper house. But the ruling coalition has fallen apart.

The SDP joined the opposition and the image of the DPJ became increasingly sullied in the minds of the people, following Hatoyama's backtracking on a campaign pledge to move an unpopular US marine base off the southern island of Okinawa.

In the coming election, it will be difficult for the DPJ to hold its 54 seats in the upper house. A 'twisted parliament' seen in the past when then the opposition Democrats and their allies won control of the upper house may return, allowing the opposition to delay bills and jam the government's policy plans.

Handling Japan-US Relations
Another challenge for the new prime minister is how to handle Japan-US relations. When the opposition, the DPJ repeatedly criticized the ruling LDP for blindly following the United States and called for a equal relation with the US. In fact, there are no differences in principle between the two parties in protecting and strengthening the Japan-US alliance.

The failure of the outgoing cabinet to relocate the U.S. air base to a coastal area within the Okinawa Prefecture suggests that politicians' promises could be dishonored and that the interests of the people on Okinawa could be ignored but the Japan-US alliance has to be protected. Kan also has to understand that for his junior cabinet to stay in office longer, he has to formulate effective economic policies so as to escort the infancy of Japan's economic recovery into real growth.

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