Monday, May 31, 2010

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I haven't written about politics here for a while. I'm kind of burnt out on it, frankly, and my focus has been split up over Japan, the upcoming Swedish elections (it starts to look like a nailbiter) and general European activities as well. But with the latest turns of events here I'm long overdue for an update.

The political situation here is a complete, utter dysfunctional mess. Nothing new in other words. The very short summary of the current state is that support for the DPJ, who won the last lower-house election, and the Hatoyama government has dropped from solid 70% support ratings down to the 20-odd percent disaster zone, in less than a year. Even more amazing, they've managed that stomach-churning drop all by themselves; the opposition LDP has been invisible, has not managed to pick up any support - that's more than a little impressive, frankly - and doesn't even seem to be in the game at all. The two largest parties now have a combined support from only 40% of all voters. Shisaku has the latest numbers (though no links to the sources).

This past week the DPJ has very publicly and very noisily reneged on an election promise - one that is fundamental to their SDP coalition partner - after wavering for over six months. The SDP has proceeded to break the coalition a month or so before the upcoming upper-house election. The only question now, really, is whether Hatoyama leaves before the election (unlikely; it's too close and there's nobody willing to step up), or if he gets kicked out after it to take responsibility for what promises to become quite a disaster at the polls.

The Hatoyama government has displayed many facets of venal incompetence the past year - let it never be said they're not a well-rounded team - but what has sealed its fate is the American military base in Futenma, Okinawa. The Futenma base is right next to Naha city, causing a lot of disturbance, noise and pollution, and the base isn't able to expand. The LDP and the US signed an agreement many years ago to move the base to Nago, again in Okinawa. There's two problems with the move, however: The area has still-unspoiled coral reefs and is home to endangered species. A base on the coast would wipe it out. Also, most US bases are in Okinawa already, and Okinawans are understandable more than a little angry that they alone have to accept the burden while the rest of the country mostly does not. A move, many think, should be somewhere else, and especially out of Okinawa to distribute this burden a bit more equitably.

Up until last year's election, this was all mostly of interest to Okinawan residents and to foreign-policy wonks. The DPJ technically only promised to review the Futenma move; the way it was presented and received by the public, however, it was effectively a promise to move Futenma base out of Okinawa. This impression was reinforced by the coalition with the SDP that has vocally and strongly opposed the base move from the outset.

When Hatoyama brought up changing the agreed-on plan with the US, they flatly refused to even discuss the matter. Over the past winter Hatoyama has repeatedly set new deadlines for resolving the issue, and sent up trial balloons for any number of solutions all of which have been shot down without even a hearing by the US authorities as well as any local government that would be affected. Hatoyama's been back-tracking in a series of public and humiliating steps - forced by US stonewalling and his own political incompetence - until last week when he announced that the existing plan would be implemented without so much as a face-saving cosmetic change.

The SDP leader Fukushima, a cabinet minister, publicly refused to sign the decision, and was kicked out of the government by Hatoyama last week and yesterday the SDP announced they're withdrawing from the coalition altogether.

Who are the losers? Hatoyama, of course. He has amply demonstrated his lack of decision-making and political skills, and his remaining time as prime minister is probably mercifully short. The DPJ takes a lot of political damage over this as well; it's their government after all, and they're the ones that elected Hatoyama prime minister candidate in the first place. The LDP has completely failed to capitalize on this in opposition. The current government inherited the whole mess from them, and if there was any issue they could not use to their advantage this was it.

The US is another loser, and they can partly blame themselves for it. The move was locally unpopular but it wasn't a major problem; people still elected local pro-base leaders based on other political issues. Had they agreed to review the decision and to make some substantive but peripheral changes to it, they would have been able to defuse much of the opposition. They may well even have been able to keep the base in Okinawa. But the stonewalling, the public humiliating treatment of the Japanese prime minister and the resulting six-month non-stop media coverage has brought the issue front and center. As Our Man in Abiko says, the public debate has shifted from base relocations to a larger, and more questioning, debate about the presence of foreign military in Japan. The public was previously non-committal towards the whole issue; now opinion has hardened into opposition.

The "victory" itself is likely to prove illusory. As Kamei, the politically shrewd leader of the People's New Party, another minor coalition member, said, this decision probably doesn't mean a thing in practice, since actually relocating the base to Nago has now become politically impossible. The current governor and local mayor are solidly anti-base and opposition runs strong thanks to the combination of US indifference and Hatoyama's bumbling. As a result, the US isn't going to actually see a new base for a generation, perhaps longer. Meanwhile, using Futenma will continue to become less viable over time due to the noise and danger. Another plane crash in an urban area like the one a few years ago, and using the base may become untenable.

Winners? The SDP, of course. They lost much of their electorate once due to a compromise over their core values; sticking with them this time seems to have paid immediate dividends in the healthy bounce in support reported by MTC above. With the election only about a month away, and with the Futenma issue fairly certain to stay fresh in the media in the run-up, they're likely to see an election payoff from those numbers too. Another winner is, likely, Your Party (Minna No To). which has sailed up as the third largest party lately, and looks well placed to soak up a good deal of disappointed centrist voters (I heard one of their speaker trucks a while ago; a major slogan was "we're neither LDP nor DPJ").

A final, perhaps surprising, winner may be the Okinawans. The move itself looks likely to be a dead duck, a resolution on paper only with little chance of actually being implemented. Meanwhile, the long-festering local problem has burst on to the national stage, a bona-fide election issue, with the public largely in support. Their chances of getting a fair hearing nationally has probably never been as good.


  1. US came across a sweet deal in time. A south Korean naval ship sinking rises tension in the pacific. It will reaffirm the importance of US bases in the regions so that they can keep their bases and silence the public with no hassles.

  2. >The move itself looks likely to be a dead duck...
    Yes I think it will be totally impossible to move the base to Henoko or to any Okinawa island after the rise of a new prefectural governor in November.


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