Can your approval rating drop to zero? That must have been the question Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was brooding over as he digested two polls taken over the weekend: his approval rating had plunged 15 points from October, to 19% in November, his lowest rating yet. Turns out, October’s spike hadn’t been a sudden turn in fortunes for a job well done, but a dead-cat bounce.
Support for his cabinet dropped to 17.7% from 29.2% in October. And only 12% of the respondents would now vote for Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which had come to power in 2009 on a platform of reforms and a stance against the formidable bureaucracy.
But reforms remain hard to see, Japan Inc. is as powerful as ever, the budget deficit is worse than ever, and public debt has reached dizzying heights. The DPJ’s three prime ministers—one for each year—have slithered down steep bumpy slopes, like all prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi. The slide lasts between 8 and 15 months. Once they hit the teens or low twenties, they get axed by their own parties. Hence, Noda’s rating of 19% after 14 months in office qualifies him for the next step in his career:
The breath of fresh air, after five decades of nearly continuous rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has become much of the same: ineffectual politicians in face of mega-problems and a bureaucracy that is as powerful as it is intransigent. The LDP, now one of nine opposition parties, isn’t riding high either. It would only garner 27.7% of the vote. These dismal poll numbers are a form of public scorn heaped upon politicians by people who’ve been paying the price.
Noda’s November dive has a lot of causes. Certainly, a yakuza scandal didn’t help. October 1, Noda did some housecleaning and brought in some new guys, including Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka. But Tanaka barely had time to settle in his chair when revelations popped up that he was close to the Inagawa-kai, the third-largest yakuza syndicate. He’d acted as marriage matchmaker for a high-level member and had given a speech at the wedding. Tanaka’s excuse? He didn’t know they were yakuza! It also seeped out that he’d received ¥420,000 from a Chinese supporter in violation of the Political Funds Control Law. An outstanding resume for a justice minister. He resigned due to health reasons after 23 days in office.
The one major “accomplishment” Noda did manage to chalk up was the despised consumption tax increase from 5% today to 8% in 2014 and to 10% in 2015. That was his “apex,” explained former Prime Minister Taro Aso, who’d been axed in September 2009, after sinking to the lowest point yet in the Prime-Ministerial Unpopularity Chart. Raising that tax was something “nobody else could do, no matter how hard they tried,” Aso said. “After that, there are no high points.”
But the only way Noda was able to get this thing through the gridlocked Diet was by promising opposition parties his own head: on August 8, he told them that he’d seek “a public mandate soon,” that he’d dissolve the lower house of the Diet and schedule general elections, which would likely kick him and his party out of power. The opposition bit—and the law passed. Since then, the soon has been percolating up in his speeches. But that’s all it did.
In October, the opposition turned up the heat on Noda: dissolve the lower house after the Diet session ends on November 30 and hold new general elections on December 16, or else it would block passage of the law that would allow the government to borrow ¥38.3 trillion ($480 billion). Japan’s version of the debt ceiling. If Noda didn’t comply, “default” would creep into the vocabulary of the media—to be avoided at all costs, given the precarious state of Japan’s finances.
Holding that bill hostage accomplished a variety of things, such as focusing worldwide attention on Japan’s “fiscal cliff.” The one thing it hasn’t done: get Noda to comply. Out of practical options, the now furious opposition has called him a liar but has shown a willingness to compromise.
And so, on Sunday, DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi backed away from that soon even further. It would be difficult to hold general elections this year, he said; the Diet would need to focus on passing two bills, including the deficit-covering bonds. So maybe next year. In which case Noda would set a post-Koizumi record in prime ministerial longevity—and perhaps in prime-ministerial unpopularity.
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