Japan’s centre-left Premier Naoto Kan, in power just seven months, faced a mutiny from a group of ruling party lawmakers Thursday that threatens his reform agenda and imperils his leadership.
Sixteen lower house members loyal to Kan’s internal party rival, scandal tainted powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, asked to leave the party’s group within parliament and said they may not support the government in crucial votes.
The rebels said they were protesting Kan’s lack of leadership and failure to meet the pledges the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) made when it swept to power in 2009, ending a half-century of conservative rule.
The party executive rejected their request to leave the Diet group — but their bold move threw a spotlight on a deep party split on a day when, a Jiji Press poll said, support for the Kan cabinet plunged to 17.8 percent.
The premier, who took power last June, has struggled to tackle entrenched economic and social woes at a time when the conservative opposition controls the upper house and has threatened to block crucial budget bills.
Japan’s economy, in the doldrums for two decades and hobbled by a graying population, was overtaken last year by China as Asia’s biggest and faces stiff competition from emerging export powerhouse South Korea.
Kan, Japan’s fifth premier in five years, has pledged to drive tough reforms through the divided parliament, to spur growth and reduce a public debt mountain twice the size of the five-trillion-dollar economy.
Standard & Poor’s last month downgraded Japan’s sovereign debt rating, saying it doubted that the Kan government — facing political gridlock — was capable of preventing Japan’s groaning debt burden from growing further.
The premier has also pushed for Japan to join a Pacific free trade zone being debated by nine countries, but faces stiff opposition from the coddled farm sector, a powerful lobby fighting to maintain high tariff walls.
The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — which ruled Japan for most of the post-war era before their ouster in an August 2009 vote — controls the upper house and has threatened to obstruct key bills.
Kan has tried and failed to win support from minor parties to give him the numbers he needs to ram budget and other bills through the Diet.
His headaches have been compounded by his nemesis within the party, Ozawa, a powerful faction boss sometimes dubbed the “Shadow Shogun”, who last year narrowly failed in a bid to oust Kan.
Ozawa will soon face trial over political funding irregularities that have seen three of his former aides indicted. All four of them deny any wrong-doing.
This week the DPJ leadership moved to suspend Ozawa from the party, triggering the revolt by 16 of his supporters.
If the rebels fail to vote with the party, it could spell doom for the DPJ, which already lacks a two-thirds majority in the lower house that would allow it to push through bills rejected by the upper house.
“What the 16 lawmakers want is to replace Kan without forcing him to dissolve the lower house and call a snap election,” said Tetsuro Kato, politics professor at Waseda University.
“But they have no-one who could possibly replace Kan, which is a problem.”
Nonetheless, Kato added, “it’s becoming clearer and clearer in the eyes of the Japanese people that the Kan government will not last long, which can also be seen in the low support rates shown in the recent polls.”
Koji Nakakita, politics professor at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, said: “I doubt the move (by the DPJ rebels) will immediately lead to a split of the DPJ… But it certainly spells a severe situation for Kan.”
“The unstable political situation is negative for Japan internationally. It is a vital problem that the Japanese political system is structurally failing to create a strong leadership. Political reform is indispensable now.”