This week, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda succeeded in passing his legislative initiative on consumption tax and social security reform through the lower house of the Diet by a vote of 393 to 96. But it was Noda’s ability to gain the cooperation of his opposition in the Diet that made it possible. Fifty-seven members of his own party decided to thwart his appeal for unity and compromise by voting against the bill (while another 15 abstained).
The engineer of this continued power struggle within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is none other than Ichiro Ozawa, the former secretary general of the party who has spent almost two years fighting an indictment for mishandling campaign funds. Ozawa was never proven guilty, and after a final court decision on April 26 to that effect, Ozawa returned to political life in the DPJ.
Yet the strength in numbers wasn’t Ozawa’s doing alone. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister who was forced to resign alongside Ozawa barely nine months after coming into office, joined Ozawa in his campaign against Noda’s leadership. In the weeks leading up to this vote, the DPJ defectors seemed to be less about policy choices and more about factional instincts. Granted, the Ozawa group spokesmen repeatedly argued that the DPJ ought to go back to its electoral manifesto and the principles of reform put forward as their vision of government back in 2009. After three years of governing experience, including presiding over Japan’s historic triple disasters, this seems hardly the time to be referencing a document that has proven impossible for successive DPJ governments to implement.
Rumors abound about the future of the DPJ. Media speculation suggests that Ozawa will leave the party to form yet another new party. If so, this will be his fifth political party affiliation since he walked out of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993 to form the Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party). Ozawa’s catalytic role in the demise of the LDP and in the rise of the DPJ is well known. But his penchant for contrarian politics seems to have yet again gotten the better of him.
The question for the prime minister, of course, is what to do about his party’s defectors. It’s hard to miss the parallel with a similar drama that embroiled the LDP in 2005. Then, their reform-minded prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, faced a similar dilemma after members of his own party failed to follow his legislative lead. The policy issue at the time was postal reform. Koizumi’s reform bill passed the Lower House of parliament by a narrow margin of victory (233 to 228), but 37 LDP lawmakers voted against the bill and 14 others chose not to vote. A month later, the Upper House defeated Koizumi’s reform bill, and this time the deciding votes were cast by the 22 LDP lawmakers who opposed their prime minster.