Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda revamped his Cabinet by adding party heavyweight Katsuya Okada as his deputy to push through a consumption tax rate hike and other crucial issues, his administration still appears to be lacking the political muscle and public support.
Okada, former president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, said in a meeting with government bureaucrats on Jan. 14 that as deputy prime minister he will give top priority to persuading the public and opposition parties to accept the tax increase and reform of the social security system.
The government has set a draft proposal for raising the consumption tax rate to 8 percent in April 2014 and 10 percent in October 2015 from the current 5 percent, along with a simultaneous overhaul of the social security system.
But the results of the latest polls by media organizations showed that Noda has failed to boost his approval rating despite reshuffling his Cabinet on Jan. 13.
The Asahi Shimbun poll, conducted Jan. 13-14, found his support rate slid to 29 percent from 31 percent in the previous survey last month.
The latest poll also showed that 57 percent are opposed to the tax hike, while 34 percent favor it. In the December poll, respondents were equally divided over the planned hike, at 45 percent.
A DPJ member who formerly served as a Cabinet member said the Noda administration’s prospects for moving key issues forward are grim.
“The failure of approval ratings to improve reflects the lack of public confidence in the Noda administration,” the politician said. “It could go up if the administration implements reforms. In the end, however, Noda will be forced to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election.”
But DPJ senior officials did not seem discouraged by the numbers.
“Approval ratings will rise if the government makes painful reforms of itself,” said Azuma Koshiishi, DPJ secretary-general.
Seiji Maehara, the party’s policy board chief, said that the Cabinet reshuffle was not carried out to improve poll numbers, but to push policy initiatives.
The government is aiming to win public support for the planned tax increases through measures to cut the number of Diet members and reduce the salaries of public employees.
But the government appears uncertain whether it can get opposition parties to the negotiating table over the tax hike and social security system reform proposals.
Noda expressed his hopes for working with the opposition parties on Jan. 14, saying on a TV news show he will first call for their cooperation to achieve those measures.
But his remarks also insinuated that he could dissolve the Lower House if opposition parties refuse to budge.
The DPJ is set to further overhaul the party's campaign manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election to elicit the cooperation of opposition parties.
“We will apologize (to voters) for having to change it," Maehara said at a speaking engagement on Jan. 14. “We will sincerely accept opposition parties’ opinions.”
The reform of the social security system is expected to be at the heart of the manifest overhaul because it is closely linked to the planned consumption tax hike.
Under the original manifesto, the DPJ called for the creation of a new social security system that would guarantee a minimum payout to those with little or low income through tax revenues.
Attacking the proposed system, Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary-general of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, called it “unrealistic” on a different TV news program on Jan. 14.
“The consumption tax alone must be increased by around 6 percentage points,” he said.
While Noda vowed to submit a package of bills concerning the reform of the social security system to the Diet in 2013, Okada sounded more flexible about the timing of the submission.
“I want to discuss with the DPJ fully (over the matter),” Okada said.
Okada is known as a “fundamentalist” because of what people perceive as his inability to bend.
Analysts say it is hard to tell how far the new deputy prime minister is willing to bend the manifesto to win over the opposition parties, which, in controlling the Upper House, stands in the way of the government in passing key bills through the Diet.
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