Sunday, July 31, 2011

Japan PM unpopular

Japanese PM's Popularity Sags Ahead of Vote

AOL News

(July 9) -- Japan's ruling party enters elections this weekend amid falling approval ratings for its new flag-bearer, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and concerns over his handling of the economy.

Sunday's vote concerns only the upper house of Japan's parliament, so the government, which controls the lower house, will stay in power regardless of the outcome.

But a weak showing from Kan's center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) could slow down the government's policy agenda and leave Japan without strong leadership as it fights to get out of the economic doldrums. Kan, a former finance minister, replaced his hapless party colleague Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister on June 4.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has put repairing the country's strained finances at the center of the campaign for this Sunday's parliamentary elections. The vote is viewed as a referendum on the Democratic Party's 10 months in power.

The DPJ rode to power last year on an ambitious platform of generous social spending, but Kan has also made deficit reduction a priority since taking the helm. Many observers doubt whether he can do both.

His party is fighting to gain an outright majority in the 242-seat upper house, where it currently holds only 116 seats. Half of the chamber's seats are up for grabs in Sunday's vote. (See more details here.)

A majority would consolidate the DPJ's power and allow it to more smoothly implement its reforms. If it doesn't get that majority, the party will be forced to patch together a new ruling coalition.

Just over a month into his term, Kan's approval ratings have plunged to 43 percent from 65 percent in mid-June, according to the latest poll by Kyodo News.

Robert Dujarric, an expert on Japan's politics at Temple University's Japan campus, said Kan is hardly alone in disappointing the fickle Japanese public.

"It seems to have happened to every single prime minister since [Junichiro] Koizumi," the flashy, outspoken leader of Japan from 2001 to 2006, he said in a phone interview. "They seem to have a very short shelf life."

"There's no party that's really satisfied the needs of the electorate," Dujarric said. "There's nothing that seems to please the Japanese voter."

Kan has been hurt by his suggestion that the consumption tax should be raised from the current 5 percent to 10 percent or more over time. That move would fit into his budget-balancing goals but is politically unpopular, as it will hit the average voter's pocketbook. He then appeared to waffle on the issue after lawmakers in his own party objected, saying there would be no tax hike in the near term.

Dujarric said Japanese voters aren't convinced he and other recent, short-lived Japanese prime ministers -- Kan is the fifth in three years -- have a sound economic plan. And none of Koizumi's successors have been able to match his communication skills, making him a tough act to follow.

"Koizumi had actor-like capabilities that others haven't had," Dujarric said. "He was Reagan-esque, in a way, and others haven't been."

Kan also has to contend with the long shadow of party elder Ichiro Ozawa, a consummate political operator. Dubbed the "shadow shogun" for pulling the strings behind the scenes under the previous prime minister, he's now become something of a back-seat driver.

Kan famously told Ozawa publicly to "keep quiet" for the sake of the country, but Ozawa has of late been sniping at Kan's leadership, taking particular issue with the mooted consumption tax hike.

But Japan watcher Tobias Harris said in a recent commentary on his website that Ozawa's criticisms could actually be good for the party.

"Ozawa's behavior during the campaign could signal a new role for Ozawa as an internal critic, concerned less with vying for control of the party than with keeping the party on what he sees as the right path," Harris wrote. "It seems to me that the Kan government could live with Ozawa's moving into this role."

If the DPJ fails to get a majority, observers say it could try to cobble together a new coalition in the upper house with defectors from the rival Liberal Democratic Party, independents and the small "Your Party." That would replace its current, shaky coalition with two other small parties.

See news report from China's CCTV below:

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