One year after Japan’s most powerful earthquake ever, the nation’s top two political parties have record-low approval ratings, signaling widespread discontent at the government’s response to the disaster.
Public support is below 20 percent for both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party for the first time since the DPJ was formed in 1998, poll data from broadcaster NHK show. The figures slid after the two focused on leadership and election-timing battles instead of cooperating to speed post-quake recovery and ensure food-safety standards.
“They’re like children fighting in the sandbox,” said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York. “The public has decided: either the government is lying to us, or they’re incompetent.”
Voter discontent increases the odds of a third party capturing support, with speculation focused on Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who calls for increased local autonomy and direct elections for prime minister. The political fragmentation has hamstrung efforts to address long-term challenges, from reining in record debt to funding pensions for Japan’s aging and shrinking population.
The LDP has delayed legislation through no-confidence motions and boycott threats in an effort to force early elections. At the same time, the DPJ has lacked continuity of leadership, with Yoshihiko Noda the party’s third prime minister since it took power in September 2009.
DPJ support last month was at 17.6 percent, with the LDP at 16.9 percent, according to a Feb. 10-13 NHK poll. Levels have held below 20 percent since December. About half of those polled said they don’t back any party.
Japan has only cleaned up six percent of the 22.5 million tons of debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 19,000 dead or missing and prompted the worst nuclear crisis in a quarter century, environment ministry data show.
While the discovery in December of radioactive cesium in baby formula exacerbated concern about the safety of Japan’s food supply, parliament held no hearings on the matter. Legislators instead focused on censuring the defense minister for a deputy’s remarks linking the relocation of a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa to a series of sexual assaults by American soldiers on the island.
“Every party, every lawmaker should be focused on reconstruction and debating concrete proposals in parliament,” said Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso, whose prefecture, where 6,000 people were killed or are missing, was one of the worst hit. “There’s no sense of urgency at all.”
LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki has rejected calls to negotiate over a plan his party originally proposed to double the consumption tax to 10 percent unless Noda dissolves the Diet and calls new elections. Noda said on March 3 that he believed a compromise was possible while denying reports he met secretly with Tanigaki to discuss a deal.
Failure to reach an agreement risks pushing up bond yields, at a time when Japan enjoys the world’s second-lowest borrowing costs even with debt that is more than twice gross domestic product.
Lawmakers acknowledge the public’s discontent. Deputy Premier Katsuya Okada told reporters last month it’s “impossible” for a government that calls for raising taxes to get high approval ratings.
LDP politicians, whose party ran Japan for all but 10 months between 1955 and 2009, say since the DPJ went back on pre-disaster pledges to rein in spending and not raise taxes, an election must be called regardless of the merits of any policy.
“I understand the argument that raising the sales tax is good for Japan and markets and helps prevent a downgrade in our sovereign debt rating,” LDP lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto said in an interview. “But the DPJ broke its promise.” He adds that he doesn’t expect his party to return to power either, as “many people still hate us. It’s serious.”
The dissatisfaction leaves an opening for smaller groups, such as Hashimoto’s “One Osaka,” or Your Party.
Hashimoto stepped down as governor of Osaka then became mayor in a November election, winning on a platform of merging the two positions. In addition to calling for voters to elect the prime minister directly, he advocates eliminating the upper house of parliament, leaving a unicameral legislature.
Your Party, formed in 2009 by disaffected LDP politicians, will work with Hashimoto’s regional group, party leader Yoshimi Watanabe said in January. Watanabe’s group has support of 2.9 percent, according to the NHK poll.
“Voters’ attitude to the DPJ and LDP is ‘a pox on both your houses,’” said Stephen R. Reed, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University. “While there’s unlikely to be only one third-party alternative, everyone is looking at Hashimoto right now.”
Noda has repeatedly said he won’t dissolve parliament and call early elections, and intends to submit the tax bill this month. While the DPJ-dominated lower house last week passed his 90.3 trillion yen budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, it may not pass the opposition-controlled upper house approval by the end of March. The next election must be called by August 2013.
Your Party legislator Kota Matsuda, former president of Tully’s Coffee Japan Co., said new voices and approaches should be considered.
“Under the current situation nothing is moving and frustration is building,” Matsuda said. “We have to find a way to take political power.”