MP’s nosedive mirrors Japan leader’s sinking ratings

May 21, 2010

With voter popularity for Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sinking to new lows, there was little sympathy even when a lawmaker from his Democratic Party fell flat on her face in parliament last week. Internet chatrooms and blogs have accused Yukiko Miyake of  faking her fall, which the Democrats blamed on a shove by a stocky opposition party lawmaker.  Footage of the scene in slow motion has flooded YouTube. One comment: “Miyake needs acting lessons”.

Just  9 months ago, the government’s support ratings stood above 70 percent after the Democrats won a landslide election, ending a half-century of nearly non-stop conservative rule. Miyake was one of many first-time lawmakers on whom voters pinned their hopes  for change – reviving the economy, cutting wasteful spending and fixing the pensions system. But polls now show the Democrats may struggle to win an election for parliament’s less powerful upper house, expected in July. Failure to win a majority risks policy deadlock at a time when Japan needs the political mandate to push through reforms and cut huge public debt.

What’s gone wrong for Hatoyama? Plenty. His credibility is in tatters, so much so that a fashion critic recently poked fun at a multi-coloured, checkered shirt the leader wore to a barbecue gathering back in April. Voters are frustrated with his handling of a row with the United States over where to relocate a Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa. He has promised a solution by the end of May, but the chances for one are looking slim. Hatoyama and Democratic Party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa are also under fire for political funding scandals. Both have refused to resign despite polls showing the scandals are hurting support.

Hatoyama has called for patience. Government spending on the economy takes time to trickle down to households.  Plus, not only are the Democrats in power for the first time, they are trying to revolutionise policymaking by reducing bureaucratic control and centralising power to the cabinet. But voters worry that Hatoyama, known more for his consensual style, lacks the strong decision-making skills needed to make the new initiative work.

The Sankei newspaper last month went so far as to report a rumour in the Democratic Party that the Hatoyama had been optimistic about resolving the U.S. base row because of a prophecy his wife heard from a fortune teller in India.  “The fact that these rumours are going around, means we’re over,” the paper quoted a party staff member as saying.

The media bashing is reminiscent of the final days of other Japanese administations under the Democrats’ rival, the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party. Hatoyama’s predecessor Taro Aso was repeatedly lampooned for verbal gaffes as his own and his party’s ratings slid ahead of last year’s resounding defeat at the polls.

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