New Cabinet must rise above party lines
Prime Minister Naoto Kan conducted a Cabinet reshuffle on Friday, through which he demonstrated his strong desire to overcome the crises Japan is now facing.
To realize his policy measures, however, it will be essential to have cooperation not only from the ruling coalition parties but also from the opposition parties. This will test the depth of the prime minister's resolve and his ability to get things done.
The goals of the Cabinet reshuffle were clear.
First, it was meant to remove obstacles to deliberations in the ordinary Diet session to be convened Jan. 24, by essentially firing Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Sumio Mabuchi. The opposition-controlled House of Councillors passed censure motions against them last year.
A censure motion is not legally binding, of course. However, the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and other opposition parties strongly demanded their dismissal. Even Takeo Nishioka, president of the upper house, demanded Sengoku's resignation, saying he was not qualified to hold an important role in national politics.
Kan apparently had no choice in such circumstances, and dismissed Sengoku and Mabuchi to avoid a stalemate from the very beginning of the upcoming Diet session.
Yosano appointment key
Another purpose of the Cabinet reshuffle was to facilitate work on joint reforms of the tax and social security systems, including a hike in the consumption tax rate, on which Kan has said he would stake his political life. It was also aimed at participating in negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and enhancing the Japan-U.S. alliance.
One particularly noticeable element to achieve these goals was the appointment of former Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano, who just left the minor Sunrise Party of Japan, to state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy.
Many members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan expressed strong opposition to appointing a lawmaker from outside the ruling coalition parties to a ministerial post, questioning how Yosano would ensure consistency between his new role as a Cabinet member and what he said and did against the DPJ-led government when he was in the opposition.
However, Kan thinks highly of Yosano's abilities and experience, and expects him to act as an intermediary between the ruling and opposition parties. Kan said at a press conference that Yosano was a key member of a panel, dubbed the panel to create a secure society, established under former Prime Minister Taro Aso to discuss the basics of social security policy. Kan also said he and Yosano share a common understanding on social security policy.
We hope Yosano will produce tangible results, such as talks on social security issues between the ruling and opposition parties.
Also, Kan appears to have expressed his intention to promote participation in the TPP by transferring Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akihiro Ohata, who was cautious toward the trade pact, to the post of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister. Banri Kaieda, previously state minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, takes over as economy minister.
The prime minister made a reasonable decision to keep Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in the same posts. The government needs continuity in its efforts to solve problems related to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture and rebuild the flagging Japan-U.S. alliance.
The prime minister has made strategic moves to solve significant political issues through the Cabinet reshuffle. His challenge is, how can he win cooperation from the opposition and adjust opinions within the DPJ to achieve that cooperation?
Acting DPJ Secretary General Yukio Edano, who is critical of former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, has assumed the post of chief cabinet secretary, a linchpin of the Cabinet. Together with the appointment of Senior Vice Defense Minister Jun Azumi as the party's Diet affairs chief, this underscores that Kan is continuing his efforts to marginalize Ozawa.
Ozawa issue leaves chasm
The prime minister has shown his willingness to take serious action to settle problems related to the alleged money-and-politics scandal involving Ozawa, which has been an obstacle to obtaining cooperation from the opposition parties.
However, the problems related to Ozawa have left a deep chasm within the DPJ. Lawmakers who support him have said coldly that the reshuffled Cabinet far from represents a united party.
It will not be easy for Kan, whose administration has a weak political base, to bring the DPJ together on difficult issues such as the consumption tax rate hike and participation in TPP.
The prime minister himself has some problems. Kan insisted stubbornly at a DPJ convention that introduction of child-rearing allowances and income compensation for individual farming households was not wrong from a historical perspective. This has made it impossible to obtain cooperation from the LDP and other opposition parties demanding that the DPJ review its election pledges.
The prime minister must humbly reflect on this and start by drastically revising the election pledges.
We also would like to make some demands of the LDP and New Komeito. All the political issues the DPJ-led government is facing were passed down to it from the LDP-New Komeito government.
Even though they are now in the opposition, it would be irresponsible for the two parties to just adopt a confrontational approach ahead of local elections to be held nationwide in April and try to force the prime minister to dissolve the House of Representatives for a general election.
Such actions will not raise their public approval ratings, either.
They should sit at the negotiation table with the ruling coalition parties and help solve difficult political issues.
Coalition framework remains
Ultimately, the prime minister failed to revise the framework of the ruling coalition in the latest reshuffle.
Kan apparently has found it difficult to take the next step after he was unable to form a coalition with the Sunrise Party of Japan.
The prime minister cannot yet outline a basic strategy on partnership with the opposition parties in the so-called divided Diet where the opposition controls the upper house. He cannot yet decide whether he should try to secure more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house--to enact important bills automatically with a second vote even if they are rejected by the upper house--or try to secure a majority in the upper house.
However, Yosano's appointment to the Cabinet post might hint at the budding possibility for reorganization of the nation's political world. As Yosano said, when tackling significant issues affecting the nation's fate, political parties should put their struggles for power aside and work together.
To promote coalition among and reorganization of political parties, it might be necessary to drastically review the controversial election systems of the upper and lower houses, including revision of the current bicameral system.
Such a major overhaul would lead to the recovery of the Diet, which has ceased to function properly.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 15, 2011)