Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence motion in the lower house of parliament on Thursday after announcing his intention to quit once he makes tangible progress in containing a nuclear crisis and rebuilding Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Kan’s last-minute announcement on his political fate after a year in office changed the minds of many lawmakers who had planned to vote in favor of the motion. He won by a margin of 293-152 in the 480-seat lower house.
‘‘I want the younger generation to take over my duties after I fulfill the role I should play’’ in reconstructing Japan, Kan said at a meeting of his ruling party just ahead of the vote.
Until the announcement, a significant number of lawmakers in Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan, especially those who have close ties with rival Ichiro Ozawa, were poised to back the no-confidence motion, sponsored by major opposition parties.
Thirty-three members, including Ichiro Ozawa—Kan’s archrival in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ—were absent or abstained from the vote.
If it had passed, Kan would have been forced to choose between his cabinet’s resignation en masse or dissolving the House of Representatives for an election.
There is already controversy among both ruling and opposition lawmakers, however, over when Kan should resign as it is difficult to judge at this point what sort of criteria should be used to evaluate that ongoing reconstruction efforts have borne fruit.
Kan left the timing of his resignation ambiguous, saying the end of his premiership will come when prospects of the rebuilding become bright.
Yukio Hatoyama, who was prime minister prior to Kan, told reporters they have struck a deal that Kan would step down when the formulation of the second extra budget for fiscal 2011 to secure more money for post-quake measures becomes visible on the horizon.
It means Kan needs to depart as early as this summer.
But within the DPJ, differences of opinion have already emerged over the interpretation of the timing.
DPJ Secretary General Katsuya said the agreement between Kan and Hatoyama says the formulation of the budget is an ‘‘important’’ factor but not the condition for him to quit.
Earlier, Ozawa and at least 50 of his loyalists who have been critical of Kan’s handling of the aftermath of the natural and nuclear disasters were prepared to vote in favor of the motion and there were signs that other DPJ lawmakers could follow suit.
The lower house is controlled by Kan’s DPJ, but he was at risk of losing the premiership if around 80 DPJ rebels in the 480-seat chamber had voted in favor of the no-confidence motion.
Despite Kan’s survival, the DPJ, which swept to power in 2009, will likely be weakened as internal bickering was so intense prior to the vote.
Ozawa—who lost to Kan in the DPJ’s presidential election last September and was indicted in January over a funds scandal—and his allies had hinted at the possibility of forming a new party in the event the motion was rejected.
For a while, Kan outlived what has now become the customary one-year stint of Japan’s revolving-door prime ministers. But the difficult situation also remains the same for his government.
It faces a host of challenges, ranging from passing key bills in the divided Diet, where opposition parties dominate the upper house, and pushing through tax and social security reforms, in addition to bringing to a close the worst nuclear crisis in a quarter century since Chernobyl at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and rebuilding the disaster-stricken region.
Kan, Japan’s fifth prime minister since 2006, and DPJ executives worked hard to foil the attempt to topple the cabinet, urging DPJ lawmakers who were still undecided with regard to the vote not to join the rebellion.
They argued that the government, first and foremost, needs to help people affected by the disasters and it is not the time for a power struggle in Japan.
Kan was facing strong calls for his resignation even before the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region that left around 25,000 people dead or missing and forced nearly 100,000 to live in temporary shelters.
The political cease-fire lasted for some time. But nearly three months after the disasters, many lawmakers have again begun to express frustration over his leadership, saying such as that for reconstruction of the region is much slower than hoped.
He blew a great opportunity - not to say that the tsunami was any blessing in disguise, though. I have no remorse for him whatsoever. The poor sap only has a few months left, anyway - and chances are he won't get the re-election. Good riddance.
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