Japanese PM Naoto Kan survives no-confidence vote, but hints he'll step down

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence motion Thursday over his response to the country's massive tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, but said he is willing to resign once the country's recovery takes hold.

Kan won by a margin of 293-152 in the 480-seat lower house. The remaining members were absent or abstained from the vote.

Before the session, Kan urged lawmakers to let him stay on and push ahead with measures to bring the country through the crisis caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 24,000 people dead or missing and crippled a nuclear power plant northeast of Tokyo. He said he would consider resigning after they firm up.

Kan did not specify a date for when he might step down or say how he would determine that the recovery was on track. Opponents immediately slammed that, saying Japan cannot afford to have a lame duck administration.

Kan, in office just one year, has been criticized for not acting fast enough on the crisis, and for a perceived lack of leadership.

"Once the post-quake reconstruction efforts are settled, I will pass on my responsibility to younger generations," he said. "The nuclear crisis is ongoing, and I will make my utmost efforts to end the crisis and move forward with post-quake reconstruction works."

Could be gone in months
Japanese media reported Kan could stay on for a few months.

"I don't think it will be long," said Yukio Hatoyama, a ruling party member who preceded Kan as prime minister.

Kan, who became prime minister just a year ago, has been criticized for delays in construction of temporary housing for evacuees, and a lack of transparency about evacuation information. His government is also embroiled in a debate about compensation for victims.

The disaster — believed to be the costliest in history — has been a huge drain on Japan's already fragile economy.

Japan's government has said the cost of the earthquake and tsunami could reach $309 billion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster on record, with extensive damage to housing, roads, utilities and businesses. Japan's ballooning debt is already twice the size of the country's gross domestic product.

On Wednesday, the largest opposition group, the Liberal Democratic Party, submitted the no-confidence motion along with two smaller opposition groups.

"We have reached the conclusion that having you step down by a no-confidence vote would be the only way to save our country from this crisis," senior LDP senior lawmaker Tadamori Oshima told Kan over a chorus of cheers and jeers in the parliament chamber.

Although his Democratic Party of Japan controls the lower house, where the no-confidence motion was submitted, dozens of ruling party lawmakers — including Hatoyama and another senior powerbroker — have expressed concern with his leadership, creating a deep rift.

"Worst-case scenario' avoided
The motion and the ruling party split have complicated Kan's efforts to unite the government behind his reconstruction plans, which involve a huge injection of funds and possibly tax increases.

"The worst-case scenario has been avoided," said Seiji Adachi, senior economist at Deutsche Securities in Tokyo. "If the no-confidence motion had passed, it would have created a political vacuum capable of significantly delaying post-disaster reconstruction."

March's magnitude 9.0 quake and the massive tsunami that followed damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. About 80,000 residents have been forced to evacuate towns contaminated by the radiation-leaking plant.

Kan's fortunes were sagging before the crisis began, but have plummeted since.

In the 1990s, Kan was a crusading health minister who stood up to his own bureaucracy to lift the lid on a horrific AIDS scandal, but he was seen as an uninspiring prime minister even before the earthquake with a popularity rating below 20 percent.

He emerged as prime minister last June only after other leaders of his Democratic Party resigned. He already is Japan's fifth leader in four years.