In Jiji Press’s February public opinion poll, the Hatoyama government’s disapproval rating surpassed its approval rating for the first time, with the former rising twelve points to nearly 45% and the latter falling eleven to nearly 36%. Disapproval among self-described independents rose thirteen points to roughly 46%. The LDP managed to gain little more than a percentage point in its support.
And yet despite sinking public approval numbers, the government has does not appeared to be fazed. Indeed, in a speech Sunday Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya stressed that the poll numbers had reached a floor and would improve from here.
Whether Okada’s optimism is merited or not, the Hatoyama government deserves credit for not panicking in response to slumping public approval. If there was one problem with LDP governments for much of the party’s rule — at least in recent years — it was hyper-sensitivity to public opinion. In just the last three years, we watched the process unfold like clockwork. Falling public approval led concerns about the prime minister’s weakening “centripetal force” as LDP officials began to question his leadership; intra-party opponents to the prime minister’s agenda would intensify their resistance; some party elder (usually Mori Yoshiro) would call for a cabinet reshuffle; and so on until resignation and ultimately a general election in the worst of circumstances.
For the most part, we are not witnessing the same downward spiral unfold under DPJ rule. The Hatoyama government has not panicked in response to newspaper polls, and appears to be carrying on with business as usual, insofar as we can call the work of this government “usual.” While there have been murmurs within the DPJ about Ozawa Ichiro’s staying on as secretary-general, the prime minister’s grip (or perhaps, more properly, the cabinet’s grip) on the party appears firm or even firmer than ever, even as the media measures the prime minister’s coffin. To a certain extent, the Hatoyama government may not be overreacting to poll numbers because it is focused on the task of implementing its agenda over the course of four years, and believes that the only numbers that matter are the results of the next general election (and to a lesser extent the upcoming upper house election).
But the other reason why the Hatoyama government has not overreacted is because it is not facing the same pressure from its parliamentary majority that its LDP predecessors faced. The DPJ simply deserves credit for keeping its backbenchers in line. By closing the policy research council upon taking office, clamping down on Diet members’ leagues, and Ozawa’s ordering newly elected members to make getting reelected their primary and only task, a dysfunctional LDP that was able to prevent its prime ministers and cabinets from effectively formulating policy has given way to a passive DPJ that is not standing in the way of its cabinet and prime minister. Of course, much of the credit here goes to Ozawa, who has centralized powers divided within the LDP in his office — and who continues to inspire fear among most DPJ members. Sankei provides an interesting example here: distributing a survey concerning money politics, voting rights for resident foreigners, and other issues to Diet members, only thirty-nine of the DPJ’s 421 members in the two houses replied to the survey, a reply rate of only 9%. Naturally Sankei complains in this article about the DPJ’s protecting its silence and its members being afraid of Ozawa, but Sankei‘s displeasure is an illustration of just how successful the DPJ has been at controlling its own members. Contra LDP members who have criticized the DPJ for lacking intraparty democracy, arguably the degree of democracy within the ruling party is inversely correlated with the effectiveness of national democracy as expressed in cabinet government. Allowing backbenchers to do whatever they please — which is what the LDP came to in its final years once the factions were unable to provide even a modicum of intraparty discipline — is a recipe for immobile government.
None of this is to deny that the Hatoyama government is without problems. Concentrating policymaking power in the cabinet is no guarantee that the cabinet will use its power wisely or effectively. But then that’s part of democracy too. The newly empowered cabinet will succeed or fail at the polls based on its performance, having no one to blame but itself should it fail to deliver on its promises.