Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda abruptly announced his resignation on Monday.
Not even a year has passed since Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, acted in similar fashion. Fukuda's surprise decision to step down means two consecutive prime ministers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party quit while they were still in office.
The resignation of a nation's leader in such a manner can only be described as abnormal and irresponsible. It is hardly surprising that calls for an immediate power transfer to the largest opposition party have emerged. This is a true political crisis.
Fukuda must have been well aware of how he would be criticized if he resigned now. Why then did he make such a decision?
At Monday's news conference announcing his resignation, Fukuda repeatedly criticized the main opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), which effectively controls the Upper House.
"During the last regular Diet session, Minshuto delayed and boycotted deliberations as part of its political maneuvering. The process took too much time to reach decisions on any issue," he said.
Explaining the reason for his departure, Fukuda added, "As things stand now, we need to implement policies under a new leadership."
There is no doubt that Fukuda had a hard time dealing with the Diet.
His remarks at the news conference indicated deep despair at the political situation.
He apparently concluded that he could no longer push through his own policy initiatives under the current circumstances. The only way to break the impasse, he seems to have concluded, was a change of leadership.
In other words, Fukuda ran out of ways to revive his political leadership.
Fukuda came to power soon after the LDP's drubbing in the Upper House election of July 2007. It would have been difficult for anyone in the face of the so-called "twisted Diet", in which the two Houses are controlled by different camps.
In a desperate attempt to end the crippling legislative gridlock, Fukuda negotiated a grand LDP-Minshuto coalition with Minshuto President Ichiro Ozawa. When the deal fell through because of opposition from Minshuto members, Fukuda had run out of ideas on how to change the situation.
Then, Ozawa's Minshuto focused its political strategy on forcing Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election. To achieve the goal, the opposition party opted for a confrontational approach on some key issues: legislation to allow the Self-Defense Forces to continue its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean as part of the US-led war against terror and an extension of the provisional gasoline tax rate beyond March expiration.
Fukuda managed to ride out the legislative crisis by using the ruling coalition's majority in the Lower House. On as many as three occasions, he resorted to a constitutional provision that allows the Lower House to override Upper House opposition to a bill by passing it a second time with a two-thirds majority.
But this process takes as long as 60 days after a bill is passed by the Lower House. The long-term political viability of this approach was clearly called into question by the steady decline of his approval ratings, which reflected a sense of frustration among the public about the snail's pace of politics.
Ironically, the ruling alliance's overwhelming majority in the Lower House, won in an election called by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, undermined the flexibility in Fukuda's Diet strategy and discouraged him from dissolving the chamber for a snap poll to break the political deadlock.
Just one month ago, Fukuda reshuffled the Cabinet he virtually inherited from Abe, finally handpicking his team of ministers. He must have intended to bolster his political standing before the extraordinary Diet session this fall so that he could push through his political agenda.
Yet, Fukuda suddenly decided to abandon his job because of the gloomy outlook for bills to extend the SDF's refueling mission and create a new consumer affairs agency.
The failure of these initiatives could have destroyed the political foundation of his government, which has pledged to promote international cooperation for peace and restore a sense of security among the public as its key policy goals.
The final blow to Fukuda's grip on power came from New Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner.
With its sights set on the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election slated for next summer, New Komeito has been lobbying for an early election. The party balked at Fukuda's plans to enact the key bills by using the ruling camp's two-thirds majority in the Lower House again, saying such high-handed actions would provoke a public backlash.
New Komeito also ensured that the government's fiscal stimulus package to ease the pains of rising prices and pump up the flagging economy included fixed-sum tax cuts, overcoming Fukuda's resistance to the measure. Fukuda feared that the proposed tax cuts would open the door to profligate public spending.
The LDP cannot enact bills disapproved by the opposition-controlled Upper House without cooperation of New Komeito. The LDP cannot hope to win in the next election without the help of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization which is New Komeito's support base.
This political reality apparently caused the LDP to put strong pressure on Fukuda to accept New Komeito's demands.
These developments highlighted afresh the Fukuda government's political weakness by making clear that it cannot even define the directions of its fiscal and security policies.
It is not hard to imagine how Fukuda lost his political energy in the face of such pressure from Minshuto, public opinion and New Komeito.
But there was another potential way for Fukuda to untangle the situation. After compiling his first budget, he could have dissolved the Lower House in January for a snap election to secure the legitimacy of his government.
During the three years since the 2005 election, which Koizumi cast as a virtual national referendum on his postal privatization initiative, two prime ministers, Abe and Fukuda, took office.
But neither called a Lower House election to seek a public mandate. The ruling coalition suffered a drubbing in the Upper House poll last summer.
With the two Houses controlled by different political camps, the legislative gridlock inevitably paralyzed policymaking. Whoever becomes the next LDP president and takes over the reins of power will sooner or later face a similar political impasse. Public support for the government will not rise as long as this fundamental problem remains unsolved.
The mission of the new prime minister, chosen through an LDP presidential election, will be to dissolve the Lower House as early as possible to face the voters' verdict. Without winning a clear public mandate, the new leader will not be able to govern the nation from a solid political position.
The urgent political imperative at the moment is to show the public a convincing plan to rebuild the social security system and restore health in public finances at the same time. It is also crucial to work out an effective package of measures to re-energize the faltering economy.
Depending on the circumstances, choices that cause pain for the public may be unavoidable. Japan must regain as soon as possible an administration that embodies the will of the public and is underpinned by solid political legitimacy.
The Asahi Shimbun