TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s biggest opposition party plans to submit a no-confidence motion to parliament, its leader said on Thursday, piling pressure on unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan as he struggles with a crisis at a tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant.
It remains unclear if a motion against Kan’s government would gain enough support from other groups, including rebels in his own Democratic Party (DPJ), to force the prime minister to resign or call a snap election.
But even if Kan manages to stay in power longer than his four predecessors, who were gone in about a year or less, the chances of progress toward fixing the ills of the world’s third largest economy seem slim.
“It’s hard to imagine a scenario that would result in the things that need to be done getting done,” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.
Dumping unpopular leaders has become an annual ritual in Japan.
Kan, sworn in last June, is already Japan’s fifth prime minister in as many years and the second since his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power for the first time in 2009, promising to change how the country is governed after more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democrats.
“A no-confidence motion is the biggest weapon of an opposition party ... and we have a responsibility to submit one since it is such a problematic government,” LDP president Sadakazu Tanigaki told a news conference. He stopped short of saying exactly when the motion would be submitted.
Already unpopular before a March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Kan has been criticized for his handling of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima nuclear plant, where three reactors damaged in the disaster suffered meltdown. His ratings are hovering below 30 percent.
Kan will be fighting on two fronts when he returns on Sunday from a trip to Europe.
The LDP and its erstwhile partner, the smaller New Komeito Party, are eager to return to power. Kan’s rivals in his own party dislike his sometimes abrasive style and are irritated by his policy shift away from campaign pledges to spend more money on supporting households. They also fear Kan’s poor ratings will scuttle their chances at the next election, due by 2013.
The LDP generally recognizes the need for social security and tax reforms, including a rise in the 5 percent sales tax, that Kan proposes.
“They agree on what they should do, but they disagree on who should do it,” said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.
Analysts and political insiders said it was still a big question whether the LDP could win over enough disaffected Democrats for the no-confidence motion to pass. About 75 out of more than 300 Democrats would have to defect to pass the motion.
Kan could call a lower house election if a no-confidence motion were to pass, but that would risk a backlash from voters who want politicians to concentrate on the nuclear crisis and on rebuilding northeast Japan, where the quake and tsunami left 25,000 dead or presumed dead and devastated the region. Tens of thousands of people are still living in evacuations centers.
Nor is it clear who would replace Kan if he were to quit.
Among the names floated are Tanigaki, a former finance minister who lacks an image as a strong leader, or a DPJ elder such as 79-year-old Kozo Watanabe, who might head a new coalition until a general election next year.
If Kan survives a no-confidence motion, his job could still be threatened if opposition parties — who control parliament’s upper house and can block bills — refuse to back a bill to allow the government to issue bonds needed to fund 44 percent of a record $1 trillion budget for the year from April.
The government could probably avoid a shut-down even without approval by the end of June, but the resulting delay in spending would dampen recovery from March 11 disasters, estimated to have caused as much as $300 billion in damages.
Kan is also struggling to find ways to fund the rebuilding of the quake-hit areas, Japan’s biggest reconstruction project since the end of World War Two, while keeping in check public debt that is already twice the size of its $5 trillion economy.
A second extra budget, is likely to be submitted to parliament around August and many experts say Japan’s only option is to finance it with a combination of higher taxes and more borrowing.
Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Alex Richardson