Analysis: New Japan premier must unify party

Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2011 file photo, Yoshihiko Noda, new president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, bows after Japan's lower house elected Noda as the country's new prime minister as outgoing Prime Minsiter Naoto Kan applauds at the lower house of Parliament in Tokyo.  Like his five predecessors, Japan's new prime minister is unlikely to last more than a year unless he can unify his divided party and convince the opposition to work together toward solutions to the country's myriad problems. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
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FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2011 file photo, Yoshihiko Noda, new president of the ruling Democratic Party …

TOKYO (AP) — Like his five predecessors, Japan's new prime minister is unlikely to last much more than a year unless he can unify his divided party and persuade the opposition to help solve the country's myriad problems.

And that could be an almost impossible feat for Yoshihiko Noda, viewed more as a mild-mannered technocrat than a charismatic visionary.

"After 20 years of economic stagnation and the complex triple disaster of March, people want an inspiring leader with a vision," says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "He can reinvent Japan, restart the economy, create jobs, give people hope. I don't think Noda is the man to accomplish that."

As Noda scurried Wednesday to assemble his Cabinet, observers were watching to see how he might share key posts with various factions within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan — particularly the largest faction headed by veteran powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, who didn't back Noda in Monday's party election.

His predecessor, Naoto Kan, was dogged by detractors from within his own party, including Ozawa, throughout his 15-month tenure, contributing to his undoing.

To effectively tackle the huge tasks at hand — the post-tsunami reconstruction, nuclear crisis, and reviving the sluggish economy — Noda must contend with a divided parliament and an obstinate opposition that has adopted gridlock as its political strategy to undermine the ruling party.

In a pattern that has been repeated a couple times in recent years, the prime minister becomes a lightning rod for public frustration, his approval ratings plunge and he eventually resigns. This was essentially what happened with Kan, and is one reason behind the high recent turnover in Japanese politics. Noda is the sixth prime minister in five years.

Noda has some strengths that might help. He is conciliatory and self-deprecating, likening himself to a bottom-dwelling scavenger fish called a loach.

As the former finance minister, he also has fiscal expertise, important for reducing Japan's bloated national debt.

But he lacks charisma and it remains to be seen whether he can translate those skills into actual results.

Kingston called Noda as a compromise candidate that would offend the fewest people within the ruling party.

"He's a safe but uninspiring choice as prime minister," he said.

The greatest challenge for Noda will be articulating a vision that can unite and inspire the country.

That will be a problem with such a divided ruling party and parliament, wrote Brad Glosserman, executive director at the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Energy is devoted to the day-to-day task of political survival rather than resuscitating the country," he wrote in a report.

Noda has likened his challenges to pushing a huge snowball up a hill, gathering more snow and weight the higher it climbs.

The Asahi, a nationally circulated daily, said in a front-page editorial Wednesday that Japan cannot afford for Noda to fail.

"Mr. Noda said during his campaign that the Democratic Party of Japan is 'at the edge of a cliff' and 'this may be Japan's last chance.' His feeling of crisis is correct. But what will he do?"

The editorial listed a litany of problems that have come to dominate the national psyche and which Noda will need to somehow overcome, including the gridlock in parliament and the foundering of confidence caused by Japan's national debt, now twice the country's gross domestic product.

"The voters will be sternly watching," it said.

Even if he survives a year, Noda could be voted out of the top job by his own party at the Democrats' next leadership election next September.

Some analysts predict that the Democrats may choose to hand over the reins to the relatively youthful Seiji Maehara, the former foreign minister who is popular with the public, to lead them in the event of a general election. The lower house's term is up in 2013.

People had high hopes for change when the Democrats swept to power in 2009, unseating the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party. But those sentiments have evaporated amid public dismay when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama could not keep a campaign promise to move a U.S. base out of Okinawa and in recent months over Kan's handling of the disasters.

Given that disappointment, public expectations for Noda are relatively low, which takes some pressure off him.

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