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Japan’s political system reeling after prime minister’s hasty exit

VOTER DISSATISFACTION Yukio Hatoyama said yesterday that he had lost the trust of the nation as his party scrambled to avoid a power vacuum. VOTER DISSATISFACTION
Yukio Hatoyama said yesterday that he had lost the trust of the nation as his party scrambled to avoid a power vacuum.
By Eric Talmadge
Associated Press / June 3, 2010

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TOKYO — The resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama after only eight months in office could paralyze Japanese politics or force the creation of a new ruling coalition, analysts said yesterday, with key elections looming and the battle over the future of a major US military base still unresolved.

Hatoyama’s Democratic Party, which will name a new chief tomorrow, moved quickly to keep Hatoyama’s resignation from creating political chaos in the world’s second-largest economy.

Several names emerged as possible successors, including Finance Minister Naoto Kan, a seasoned progressive with a relatively clean record, and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Kan said he intends to run.

“We cannot allow a vacuum to form,’’ said Ichiro Ozawa, a cofounder of the Democrats who also announced his resignation yesterday. “We will have a new leader by the end of the week, and a new administration by next week.’’

But analysts said Hatoyama leaves the party a thorny legacy.

Hatoyama said he would resign because of a funding scandal and his failure to keep a campaign promise to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the southern island of Okinawa, a flip-flop that infuriated Okinawans and defined Hatoyama for many Japanese voters as a weak leader unable to stand up to Washington.

“He created a lot of distrust, both within Japan and in Washington,’’ said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Nihon University.

Hatoyama acknowledged yesterday that he had lost the trust of the nation.

His resignation comes just ahead of an election next month for half of the seats in Parliament’s upper house that could test its now-fragile voter mandate.

Some analysts saw Hatoyama’s resignation as a preemptive bid to help the party — his Cabinet has garnered so little support in polls recently that he is seen as a liability by many.

But if the party, an eclectic mix of progressives and former ruling party rebels, does poorly, Hatoyama’s successor could have the same fate — creating further uncertainty.

“I think they will have to form a new coalition,’’ said Takehiko Yamamoto, an international relations professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “They are not looking good going into the next elections.’’

Opposition leaders said Hatoyama’s resignation proves the previously untested Democrats aren’t fit to govern.

“He quit without solving anything,’’ said Sadaaki Tanigaki, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era before Hatoyama toppled it. “He just threw up his hands and quit.’’

Tanigaki said he would seek snap elections in the lower house as well. But it was not clear how well the Liberal Democrats would do at the polls — they had similar problems before the Democrats took over. Hatoyama is Japan’s fourth prime minister in four years.

Promising to shake up Japan’s moribund status quo, Hatoyama, the scion of a wealthy family who has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford, swept to power in elections last August, dealing a stinging defeat to the Liberal Democrats — who represent conservatives and big business. The victory was hailed as the beginning of a two-party system in Japan after decades of almost complete dominance by the LDP.

But his honeymoon ended quickly.

He and Ozawa — the public faces of the Democratic party — were hit with money scandals shortly after taking office, including a political funding scandal in which two of Hatoyama’s aides were convicted of falsifying political contribution reports.

Questions about his ethics increased after investigators found Hatoyama received $170,000 a month from his mother to support his political activities — although he said he had no knowledge of the contributions until the prosecutors’ investigation.

More crippling for Hatoyama, however, was pressure from Washington throughout his term that forced him to back away from a campaign pledge to move the Futenma base, an important US airstrip and helicopter hub, off the southern island of Okinawa.

Hatoyama’s failure to stand up to Washington, which insisted a replacement base be built on Okinawa, infuriated Okinawans, who host more than half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan, and generated the perception among mainstream Japanese voters that Hatoyama lacked leadership and credibility.

“The fact that the US was unhappy was a big influence,’’ said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “He looked incompetent because he made a lot of noise and didn’t get anything.’’

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