Tokyo: Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan is facing a backlash for saying he would quit once recovery from the March 11 quake disaster takes hold, and then suggesting he wants to stay until next year.
The political feud comes as Japan struggles to recover from the March quake-tsunami disaster and the nuclear crisis it triggered, while seeking to revive its flagging economy and whittle down a huge debt mountain.
Kan survived an opposition no-confidence motion on Thursday that some rebel members of his own party had threatened to support, after appeasing his enemies by promising to step down but without specifying a date.
Asked in a late-night press conference on Thursday when the disaster recovery will have reached the point where he would agree to bow out, Kan stayed vague, referring to the stabilisation of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power has said it hopes to bring all reactors to stable “cold shutdown” between October and January but its recent confirmation of partial fuel meltdowns has threatened to delay that goal.
Some political commentators saw Kan’s move as a clever ploy that has allowed him to live another day, but most decried the manoeuvre as a gambit that left Japan with a lame duck leader as it tackles its worst post-war crisis.
“It is irresponsible for him to stay in power at half-steam,” the mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial. “In order to prevent a political breakdown, he should shorten the period until he resigns.”
The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — which tried to oust Kan on Thursday, arguing that he has bungled the disaster recovery and the handling of the nuclear crisis — has reacted furiously to its defeat.
LDP lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto angrily called Kan’s tactics a “con”.
The fury was shared by many inside Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — a broad centre-left grouping that ousted the LDP in a landslide in 2009 but has since then limped along under two unpopular prime ministers.
Its first premier Yukio Hatoyama — who survived less than nine months in the post and who is now among Kan’s harshest critics — said after Thursday’s vote that Kan should resign as early as this summer.
Hatoyama had met Kan hours before the make-or-break parliamentary vote and later said he had extracted a promise from Kan to leave within months, in return for Hatoyama’s support in defeating the no-confidence motion.
Since then, Hatoyama has reacted angrily to Kan’s vague comments on how long he wants to stay in power, bitterly telling reporters on Friday about Kan that “if he can’t keep the promise, he is a cheat”.
The political power plays have sparked an outcry from newspapers, business leaders and earthquake survivors, who urged Japan’s political class to stop squabbling and get on with the task of rebuilding the country.
About 100,000 people still live in shelters, awaiting temporary housing, after the tectonic disaster left more than 23,000 people dead and missing and reduced scores of coastal towns and villages to muddy rubble.
The catastrophe plunged Japan back into recession, and the massive clean-up and reconstruction cost over the coming years will add to what is already the highest public debt mountain in the industrialised world.
“What lawmakers are urged to do is to achieve recovery and reconstruction at the earliest date,” said the liberal mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun daily.
“The Democratic Party of Japan should pick its new leader swiftly and proceed with policy discussions.”
Evacuees from the 20 kilometre (12 mile) no-go zone around the radiation-leaking Fukushima plant, which overheated when the tsunami knocked out its cooling systems, also voiced anger at the political chaos in Tokyo.
“This is not the time to quarrel,” said Akio Ikuhashi, a 61-year-old man who has lived in a shelter in Nihonmatsu, central Fukushima prefecture, since he fled his home which lies just three kilometres from the stricken plant.
“It’s time to stop fighting and to seek unity, to settle the nuclear accident as quickly as possible,” Ikuhashi said by phone. “Watching this quarrel, I don’t believe the politicians really understand our situation.
“The politicians in Tokyo live comfortably with nice food and air conditioning. They should come and stay in the evacuation centre with us.”