The immediate cause — beyond falling public approval — is Hatoyama’s lingering political funds problem. Sankei, the “opposition” newspaper that sometimes appears to be little more than a mouthpiece for the LDP, wonders whether the Hatoyama government is, in the words of an LDP official, in “dangerous waters” as prosecutors assemble the case against two former Hatoyama aides indicted for violations of the political funds control law. On Thursday evening, the prime minister held a press conference on the indictments, taking responsibility for the violations but dismissing calls to resign.
In response to Hatoyama’s press conference, Tanigaki Sadakazu, the LDP’s president, offered the absurd idea that the prime minister should immediately resign, dissolve the House of Representatives, and call a general election.
What Tanigaki’s response tells us is that Hatoyama’s problems have little or nothing to do with the LDP. The LDP is no more ready to receive the confidence of the Japanese people today than it was on 30 August — indeed, it may be even less capable of earning the trust of the Japanese public. Hatoyama’s problems instead lie with the media, which is capable of offering much more potent resistance to the sitting government than the LDP at this moment in time. “Public opinion” as packaged by Japan’s media outlets has long played an outsized role in determining the fate of Japan’s prime ministers, the monthly opinion polls conducted by newspapers and TV stations effectively providing an EKG for their governments. The last years of the LDP provided example after example of the power of “public opinion.” LDP barons worried more about the sitting cabinet’s approval ratings than whether the sitting government was fixing Japan’s numerous and multiplying problems. Somehow in their pursuit of “public opinion” the public interest got left behind.
The DPJ was effectively elected on a platform that rejected this approach to politics. Taking its manifesto seriously, the party viewed its electoral victory as a mandate for implementing — or at least trying to implement — its policy proposals. Its manifesto included a four-year timetable for its proposals. In other words, the only register of public opinion that would matter to the DPJ would be the next general election, when the Japanese people would judge the DPJ on its record in office. It would not be obsessed with the month-to-month fluctuations of newspaper opinion polls.
Faced with open speculation about who will replace Hatoyama should he step down in January before the 2010 ordinary Diet session, including speculation that his replacement might be Ozawa Ichiro, whether the DPJ will be able to stay true to this new style of politics will be sorely tested in the coming weeks.
Defending Hatoyama — even to establish a new principle — is less than ideal. His political organization’s accounting “irregularities” were known even before the election, and his hold on his own government appears at times to be tenuous, even if I wouldn’t go so far as to declare that Ozawa is using Hatoyama as a puppet. (The LDP, drawing upon its own history, has taken to calling the government the “Ohato” government, alluding to the description of Nakasone Yasuhiro’s first government as the “Tanakasone” government for the role supposedly played by Tanaka Kakuei in its formation.) And there is a certain political sense in not lashing the party’s fortunes to its leader.
But despite these negatives, the DPJ is better off rallying behind the prime minister. To abandon Hatoyama now is to continue to afford the media an extraordinarily powerful role in picking who leads Japan. The DPJ’s political reforms do not necessarily call for a presidential-style premier, but to retain the LDP’s revolving door at the Kantei would undermine the image of the DPJ’s election as signifying genuine political change — and it would invite even more attacks from the media on the government. If the mass media can dog the DPJ into an abandoning a prime minister once, why not a second time? And why stop at changing prime ministers? Why not pressure the government into calling a snap election too? Finally, a change of prime ministers mere months into Hatoyama’s term would reinforce the image abroad that Japan is ungovernable, an image which Hatoyama, through his travels during his first months in office, has tried to change.
The Hatoyama government has an opportunity to fight back in the weeks before the ordinary session. With its budget in hand — the cabinet agreed to the 92.3 trillion yen budget for 2010 on Friday — the government can push back against its critics by showing that it is taking the first steps in following through on its campaign promises. It has weeks during which it can defend its choices regarding which promises to maintain (universalistic child allowances, free secondary education) and which promises to scale back (retaining the gasoline surcharge). The LDP is already attacking the budget as a “violation of the manifesto,” and criticizing the government for not referring to a consumption tax increase as a way to address mounting social security outlays. The Hatoyama government should take this opportunity to steer public discussion away from the prime minister and back to the policy agenda upon which it was elected.
As Nakasone himself said recently, the government is still in its early stages; it is too soon to expect results. The agenda is bigger than any single politician — Ozawa included — but for the moment the DPJ’s success depends on surviving this initial period with the public still behind it. Hatoyama may not last four years in office, but if the DPJ is to show him the door, it should do so on its own terms, and not because the media has dictated that Hatoyama’s head should roll sooner rather than later. And if the DPJ can successfully defend Hatoyama from the media in the short term, it may improve Japanese politics over the long term by weakening the ability of media organizations to shape political outcomes.