Question: Japanese governments are typically weak, squeezed as they are between internal party politics — politicians are less loyal toward their parties than to their factions and money donors — industry associations and special interest groups, and a powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy that ignores the government at will. We've had five Prime ministers in as many years.
The current situation is even worse than usual. The ruling party is close to splitting over internal disagreements. The opposition has control of the upper house and is opposing any and all legislation it can in a bid to force the government to call a general election. A general election that won't be held any time soon: the DPJ knows it will lose many seats and wants to delay as long as possible; the tsunami-ravaged areas are still in no condition to hold any kind of election; and the supreme court has declared the current election district system unconstitutional.
Prime minister Kan has promised the opposition to resign in exchange for the passage of a few budget- and energy-related bills. This will happen within a couple of weeks, and the internal DPJ campaign for electing the next PM is in full swing; Maehara, Noda, Mabuchi and others are all possible candidates. This is just a temporary appointment, though, as the regular party leadership election is scheduled in a year.
The newly appointed PM will have virtually no political leverage with the opposition or the ministries and can count on no public support. Everyone knows they will face a re-election (and likely defeat) in a year, making them a lame duck from day one. The pressing problems — reconstruction of Tohoku, resolution of the Fukushima disaster, rapidly worsening state finances and the effects of a strong yen and worldwide recession — are all mostly out of their hands, but still their public responsibility.
Given the grave situation above, what practical effect will the choice of new Prime minister have on Japanese politics in general; and the task of rebuilding northern Japan, turning around the economy and formulating a new energy policy in particular?
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