The economy continues to struggle (and deflationary pressure continues to grow), US officials are displeased over the government’s decision to delay on Futenma, and polls show the public souring on the new government.
Two recent polls show that the Hatoyama government’s approval rating has fallen below 50%. Asahi‘s poll recorded a fourteen-point drop in the government’s approval rating, from 62% to 48%, with its disapproval rating rising from 21% to 34%. The biggest blow to the government’s approval came from independents. The poll found disenchantment with Hatoyama Yukio’s leadership — and 60% disapproved of the government’s handling of the Futenma dispute. The Asahi poll is not all bad news: the DPJ continues to enjoy considerable support, 42% of respondents to the LDP’s 18% (the DPJ’s support fell four, the LDP’s rose four).
Jiji’s poll found the government’s approval rating fell more than seven points to 47%, with respondents similarly voicing their disenchantment at the prime minister’s leadership. In Mainichi‘s poll, the government is still above fifty percent approval, but its support fell nine points to 55% — and nearly 70% of respondents said that they were “worried” about the government’s approach to the US. The DPJ continued to hold a wide advantage over the LDP in the Mainichi poll.
One more poll number is worth mentioning: the Jiji poll asked respondents who they think is the most influential actor in the government. 71% said Ozawa Ichiro. Hatoyama was second, with 10%.
Back in September, the day before the Hatoyama government took power, I listed what I thought were the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Hatoyama government. In the latter category, I listed Hatoyama, Ozawa, and the media. I anticipated that the combination of these vulnerabilities could produce a vicious cycle that could unravel the government. In these figures I wonder whether that is exactly what we are seeing. I do not think that Ozawa is actually the most important figure in the government. What the 71% figure tells us is that the media has succeeded in constructing a narrative that shows Ozawa as the most influential figure in the government. After all, a poll question on who respondents think is the most influential figure in the government is asking respondents not what they think of some policy question that has some bearing on their lives but what they’ve heard on TV or read in newspapers. Naturally with articles like this one from Sankei — “Mr. Ozawa’s leadership gaining strength — ‘Government Unification’ becoming a dead letter” (referring to unifying cabinet and ruling party) — the Japanese public might get the idea that Ozawa is considerably more significant than the prime minister.
The latest concerns about Ozawa are the result of a dispute between Ozawa and the prime minister over the 2010 budget. Aware of the need to control spending, especially with this year’s tax revenues falling below 40 trillion yen for the first time since 1985 even as debt issuances increased to 53.5 trillion yen, the government and the DPJ are debating how to modify the party’s election promises. The government will try to limit new debt issuances to 44 trillion yen next year, which, barring a massive and unlikely increase of tax revenue, means that the party will have to scale back its spending plans. Naturally Ozawa and the government have different opinions on what should be scaled back.
The DPJ — i.e. Ozawa — has submitted a proposal to the government for what the budget should look like. On the spending side, the plan calls for, among other things, introducing a 13,000 yen/month child allowance in the first fiscal year of the program, ending fees for public high schools, introducing income support for farmers, and paying out new subsidies for local governments. On the revenue side, it includes proposals to increase fees for medical services, retain the temporary gasoline surcharge but cut the automobile weight tax, change the highway toll system gradually, and begin investigating an environment tax. Combined with Ozawa’s intervention with the Imperial Household Agency to secure a meeting between the Emperor and Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice president reputed to be Hu Jintao’s likely successor, Ozawa appears to be inordinately powerful as a policymaker.
But his influence has, I think, been overstated, in part because the media has wanted to treat Ozawa as the government’s “shadow shogun” from the moment Ozawa passed the reins to Hatoyama, in part because the media’s expectations concerning the unification of cabinet and ruling party are unrealistic.
Regarding the former, Ozawa simply overshadows every other DPJ politician, Hatoyama included — although when I say overshadow, I do not mean overshadow in terms of influence. Rather everything Ozawa says or does is dissected by the media. He is charismatic in his way, has interesting things to say when asked, and is always good for headlines, very different from Hatoyama in these respects. Hatoyama is a bit professorial, and, well, boring. And now that he is prime minister, he has to be careful with his words in a way that Ozawa, not holding a cabinet post, does not have to be.
As a result, Ozawa looks and sounds influential. But that does not make it so. There was never going to be a way to completely silence Ozawa or to entirely subordinate the ruling party to the cabinet. Ozawa, guardian of the party’s majority and therefore its electoral prospects, was never going to be completely silent on policy, at least insofar as the government’s policy decisions affect the party’s political outlook. The question is whether political considerations are considered as one concern among several in cabinet deliberations or whether they are the dominant concern. It is at this point that I part ways with the press. I do not think that Ozawa is issuing marching orders to the government. In fact, I think the reports of mutual displeasure may be signs of the limits of Ozawa’s influence. Ozawa has suggested some ways of trimming the party’s manifesto that he thinks maximizes the party’s chances in the next year’s upper house election. Others will disagree. Ozawa himself has said that the final decision belongs to the government. Will he accept that decision without complaint?
In fact, this debate over Ozawa’s influence obscures the fact that we are talking about one man. Under the LDP we could not have this debate because it was not just one man in the LDP who wielded a veto but a vast network of committees and subcommittees in PARC, faction leaders, the election strategists, and the party elders in the general council. As troublesome as Ozawa can be, is he more meddlesome than the LDP’s policymaking system, when a debate of this nature would mean input from every committee chair or subcommittee chair with the slightest interest in the forthcoming budget (i.e., everyone)? A single veto player can be overruled or coaxed into cooperation. The same could not be said for the LDP’s policymaking system. Any discussion of Ozawa’s role must keep sight of the alternatives.
Ultimately these developments reinforce the idea that there was no way to completely neutralize Ozawa’s negative influence on the Hatoyama government. And the bigger problem — as the opinion polls suggest — may be Hatoyama and not Ozawa. As in the case of Kamei Shizuka in the early days of the Hatoyama cabinet, Hatoyama has allowed a political vacuum to form and allowed someone else to fill it, in this case Ozawa. Hatoyama has won a small victory, with the Tokyo prosecutor’s office announcing that it will not seek to indict the prime minister, but he has bigger problems. Can he show enough backbone to dispel the impression that he cannot lead his own government?
The public has not abandoned the DPJ yet. But it needs some sign that the prime minister is actually in control of his own government. Disagreements and discussion among cabinet ministers — and between Ozawa and the government — are acceptable, as long as Hatoyama is able to make clear that the final word truly is his. He needs to inject his voice into the debate more. We need to hear more of what he thinks. Otherwise Ozawa’s outsized personality will continue to dominate the public image of the government, the media will continue to feast on the disorder, and the Hatoyama government’s approval rating will continue to fall. The Hatoyama government is perilously close to the vicious cycle that I feared would endanger the government from the start.