TOKYO Dec 4 With less than two weeks left to
the Dec. 16 election, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is
displaying the same quiet determination that helped him clinch a
breakthrough deal on his controversial plan to raise the
country's sales tax.
It seems to be working.
Noda, who once likened himself to an unattractive but
hard-working "dojo" bottom-feeding fish, is just behind
opposition leader Shinzo Abe in individual ratings. His
Democratic Party of Japan is also narrowing an albeit large gap
with Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
"I'm determined to do my utmost and fight to the bitter end
... so that the Democratic Party can stay in power," Noda told
reporters on Monday, the eve of the official kick-off of
campaigning in voting districts.
A comeback from behind would be nothing short of a political
miracle. But a solid election result could keep Noda's party in
play since the vote is unlikely to produce a clear winner, thus
requiring some form of a coalition to be formed.
Last week Noda, 55, became the longest serving Japanese
prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006
after five years in office - a testimony to his staying power,
grit and underrated political acumen.
When Noda took over in September 2011 as Japan's sixth prime
minister in five years, few thought he would last more than a
year or that he would accomplish much.
But the former finance minister and career lawmaker not only
hung in there, he also pushed through a plan to raise the sales
tax to help fund the swelling social security costs of the
ageing nation -- the most significant move in years to pare back
rising public debt levels.
Successive leaders had shied away from tackling the
politically hot issue for fear of a voter backlash.
He accomplished the feat despite being dealt a weak hand.
The party was torn by internal divisions and it lacked control
of parliament after losing upper house elections in 2010.
"He's got a major change in the tax system under his belt
and anyone who does objective analysis has to give him credit
for that," said Jesper Koll, head of equity research at JPMorgan
Chase in Tokyo.
In style, the workmanlike Noda is nothing like the
charismatic Koizumi, but his aides have said he showed similar
toughness and willingness to take risks.
Noda also appeals to the public with his "everyman" image.
As the son of a military man, he is not one of Japan's
"hereditary politicians" like Abe, who is a former prime
minister and the grandson of a premier.
The black-belt judo practitioner and a fan of pro wrestling,
who honed his political oratory skills on a commuter train
platform, said last week he was glad to be back on the campaign
trail and connecting with people.
"I stood at curb side in front of a train station in Tama
and gave a political speech, which is something I hadn't done in
quite some time," Noda wrote in his blog. "For me, who for 25
years held a microphone for three hours every morning in
Funabashi appealing to the passersby, I feel that I came back to
my roots in spirit."
But while Noda showed that it was possible to break Japan's
persistent policy gridlock and get things done, he and his party
have paid a steep price.
His dogged pursuit of the tax plan and compromises with the
opposition deepened divisions within his party that led to a
split and the desertion of dozens of lawmakers.
Some say the Democrats became a smaller, but more coherent
party after its former leader and Noda's nemesis, Ichiro Ozawa,
left with a group of followers angered by the tax hike plan.
Noda's supporters also point out that the Democrats were
bound to disappoint after they swept to power in 2009, riding a
wave of public discontent over more than half a century of
nearly unbroken rule by Abe's party, the LDP.
They argue that some campaign promises were unrealistic to
start with, while others had to be dropped after Japan suffered
the double hit of the global financial crisis and the March 2011
earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Critics, however, blame Noda for reneging on the Democrats'
core commitment to take power away from bureaucracy and for
ending up in style and content a lot like the long-dominant LDP.
"He brought the technocrats back to the table. The
definition of national interests under Noda went back to
Kasumigaseki (government district) and the bureaucrats," said
In fiscal matters, the Democrats have adopted a tax hike
stance long pushed by Finance Ministry mandarins and are now
portraying themselves as a party of restraint and reason, in
contrast with the big-spending promises of the LDP.
Critics also charge that Noda, which one commentator quipped
is the best prime minister the LDP never had, betrayed Japanese
voters by pushing his party to the right of the political
"The change of direction he pursued negated the change of
the government in 2009," said Sophia University professor Koichi
Nakano. "He left voters with very few options to choose from."