Japan elections a setback to new prime minister


Newly minted Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s beleaguered Democratic Party appeared to suffer a resounding defeat in Japan’s parliamentary elections Sunday, a blow that threatened to further weaken Kan’s already tenuous monthlong hold on power.

The Democratic Party of Japan won fewer than 50 seats, well short of the 54 needed for the Democrats and their tiny coalition partner, the People’s New Party, to keep their combined majority in parliament’s upper house, according to exit polls conducted by Japan’s public broadcaster and all major TV networks. Official results were expected Monday.

Although the Democrats hold a majority in Japan’s more powerful lower chamber, the poor showing will undermine their ability to control the national agenda in the world’s second-biggest economy, beset by massive public debt and a foreign policy malaise typified by the lingering dispute over the continuing presence of U.S. troops on the southern island of Okinawa.


Kan’s party will now need to seek new coalition partners to regain control of the upper house, complicating policymaking as a jaded Japanese public looks on.

The defeat also left Kan — who took office in June after his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, quit after only eight months — increasingly vulnerable to a challenge from within his party.

Analysts had called Sunday’s vote a litmus test for Kan, a former finance minister who had sought to distance himself from Hatoyama. The latter was labeled as ineffectual after he failed to deliver on a campaign promise to move a major U.S. military base off Okinawa’s main island.

Kan pledged to stick to an agreement with Washington to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less crowded part of Okinawa despite public demands to move the troops off the island entirely.

The plainspoken Kan, 63, took office with a 60% approval rating. But he quickly stumbled, pushing a controversial plan to double the sales tax to 10%, his solution to rein in a public debt that has grown to twice the size of Japan’s nearly $5-trillion economy.

Drawing criticism that he was as much of a political flip-flopper as his predecessor, Kan then backed off of the tax hike, which had been hailed by some newspaper editorials as a tough and sensible medicine, delaying its timing for up to three years.


In a midnight news conference, Kan acknowledged his mishandling of the tax increase had helped set his party up for defeat.

“The election results are far from the goal we had,” he said. “I believe that a cause for the results coming in this way was due to how I touched on the sales tax issue.... There wasn’t enough explanation beforehand.”

The Democrats surged to power in August, ending half a century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, promising to rein in bureaucrats, cut wasteful spending and bring transparency to the government in Tokyo.

But that task has proven unwieldy. Kan is the nation’s fifth leader in three years. The political revolving door has caused the public to lose trust in its leadership.

“Kan’s leadership has been wounded — the Democrats are getting hammered worse than people anticipated,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan and author of the book “Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change since the 1980s.”

“The message that Japanese voters are sending is that ‘You have disappointed us. You have not delivered.’ ”


Kingston said that Kan has been decisive in the past, joking with reporters that he is a good debater thanks to constant bickering with his wife. But he has been hurt by his handling of the proposed tax increase.

“He’s not an indecisive guy — he’s passionate and resolute,” Kingston said of Kan. “But when he backtracked on the tax issue, he looked like just another waffler.”

And Kan’s pledge to work with Washington on its base relocation, Kingston said, could mean an ugly backlash at home.

“Kan says he wants to play ball with the U.S., but will the Okinawans let him? They are angry and they are promising to disrupt construction of an offshore runway for the new base.”

Many say Sunday’s outcome leaves Kan vulnerable to a challenge from party power broker Ichiro Ozawa, a major critic of his sales tax proposal, before a party leadership vote in September.

Taking to the stump Sunday, Kan asked voters to give his party another chance to enact its policies and revitalize the nation, apologizing for creating “confusion and mistrust” over his tax-hike talk and the U.S. base dispute.


Later, Kan insisted at his news conference that he would not step down.

“I feel like I am repositioning myself on the starting line with this, to continue handling the government in a responsible manner,” he said.

But Sadakazu Tanigaki, who heads the rival Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters that the ballot results suggest that voters had given up on the Democrats.

“I think voters felt the DPJ’s policy wandered…. Take, for example, their sales tax policy and handling of Futenma base” in Okinawa, he said. “I think voters felt they weren’t reliable.”

Glionna reported from Seoul and special correspondent Nagano from Tokyo.