Analysis: Japan PM safe in job for now, at risk when crisis over

By Linda Sieg

(Reuters) – Bit by bit, the gloves are starting to come off.

The media and opposition politicians who muted their criticism of Japan’s government as it struggled with the triple calamities of a massive earthquake, tsunami and a crippled nuclear plant are growing more vocal, a prelude to fiercer attacks that will come when the crisis fades.

That bodes ill for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose grip on power was weakening before the deadly March 11 earthquake struck and who could well face pressure to resign once the uneasy political truce inspired by the disaster ends.

“In a paradoxical way, as long as the situation is critical, he is secure, but if he succeeds in containing the crisis, he will be criticized,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“I’m not sure any politician at the helm would have made much difference, but it’s natural that when people relax, they will vent anger.”

Kan’s resignation could conceivably clear the way for a rejigged ruling coalition, and that would break a parliamentary deadlock that has kept Japan from crafting policies to address the country’s most profound problems, a fast-aging society and huge public debt.

But pessimists wonder if any replacement of Kan — already Japan’s fifth premier since 2006 — would do any better.

Kan, 64, was already in danger before the disaster struck.

His voter approval rating had sunk to around 20 percent, opposition parties — which control parliament’s upper house — were blocking budget bills to force a snap election that his Democratic Party (DPJ) was at risk of losing, and critics inside the DPJ were pressing him to quit to revive their fortunes.

Since the disaster, the pressure on Kan has faded as critics inside and outside the ruling party tried to avoid the appearance of political maneuvering at a time of crisis.

Opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Sadakazu Tanigaki has refused a request to join the cabinet, but he has pledged to cooperate in what could be Japan’s costliest reconstruction effort since its defeat in World War Two.

Kan has mostly shunned the public in the past two weeks, giving three news conferences but taking few questions since the earthquake and tsunami, which devastated northeast Japan, killed at least 10,000 people and probably thousands more, and turned a nuclear power plant north of Tokyo into a radiation-leaking wreck.

COMMAND AND CONTROL

One day after the quake hit, Kan flew by helicopter to view the crippled nuclear complex, and was widely reported to have dashed to the headquarters of the facility’s operator to blast executives there for mishandling the crisis.

Both actions have come under fire.

“As top commander, the prime minister’s role is to remain firmly at his office … and coordinate,” Sadatoshi Ozato, a former lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, was quoted as saying by the Sankei newspaper on Saturday.

“The top commander shouldn’t be absent because he is flying in a helicopter or going to the power company,” said Ozato, who was minister for disaster measures after the 1995 quake that struck the western city of Kobe, which killed more than 6,400.

More than 700 workers have been mobilized to stabilize the plant and some progress has been made, but fresh fears were raised on Thursday when three workers were exposed to highly radiated water, sparking concerns about further contamination and delays to efforts to move beyond ad hoc cooling measures.

Concern and confusion also grew after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on Friday that the government was urging thousands of people living in a 20-30 km (12-19 mile) radius zone beyond the stricken complex to leave voluntarily, but would not for now widen a 20 km evacuation zone.

“It will be hard to avoid the weak, such as the elderly and sick, being left behind,” the Yomiuri newspaper quoted LDP lawmaker Yasutoshi Nishimura as saying.

Such criticism may remain mild as long as the nuclear crisis persists and tsunami survivors in the northeast, where more than a quarter of a million are in shelters, are still suffering.

“If the situation at the Fukushima plant stabilises — though we don’t know when that will be — intense criticism will emerge,” said political commentator Minoru Morita.

A Supreme Court ruling last week urging parliament to correct a big disparity in the weight of electoral votes between rural and urban districts makes a snap poll unlikely in the near term.

Kan’s resignation might clear the way for a broad coalition between the Democrats and the LDP, making it easier to tackle long-stalled reforms.

“If he goes, the LDP will consider a coalition. That is really the only path forward,” analyst Morita said.

Others, however, were less sanguine. “I don’t see any alternative that would make things better,” Nakano said.

(Editing by John Chalmers)

Analysis: Japan PM safe in job for now, at risk when crisis over