Tokyo Notes

DPJ’s Grim Reaper?

Recent Features

Tokyo Notes

DPJ’s Grim Reaper?

By running for prime minister, Ichiro Ozawa could tear Japan’s ruling party apart.

Ichiro Ozawa’s decision to step out of the shadows and stand in next month’s Democratic Party of Japan leadership election against Prime Minister Naoto Kan will no doubt be applauded at party headquarters—that is, the headquarters of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

The move by the DPJ’s manipulator-in-chief shows scant regard for the interests of his party or a nation sliding into economic gloom; rather, it appears to be an opportunistic shot at fulfilling a long-held personal ambition.

While he has served as leader of the DPJ in opposition and secretary general in office, Ozawa has long been the kingmaker but never the king, and this could be his last chance to wear the prime ministerial crown.

He does, however, have other likely motives for standing.

Ozawa has been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending scandal over misreported funds, and public prosecutors plan to grill him on the subject for a fourth time after the Sept. 14 poll. He can, however, wriggle out of questioning and a possible indictment if he becomes premier, thanks to a clause in Japan’s top law. Article 75 of the Constitution states: ‘Ministers of State, during their tenure of office, shall not be subject to legal action without the consent of the Prime Minister.’ Much in the same way, Ozawa is rumoured to have kept prosecutors off his back by clinging onto his previous role as secretary general for longer than many in the DPJ desired.

Ozawa may also have a personal beef with Kan that has pushed him to run. The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun recently pointed out that Kan has given Ozawa the cold shoulder since becoming prime minister and that Kan would only offer Ozawa an honorary role such as advisor in a new Kan-led administration. The Yomiuri also speculated that Kan’s refusal to appoint Ozawa to a key post could have convinced former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to throw his weight behind Ozawa, his tag-team partner.

The DPJ’s 412 Diet (lower and upper house) lawmakers, 2,382 regional assembly members and about 350,000 party members are eligible to vote for the party leader. But weighting means that legislators account for 824 of the 1,224 points up for grabs, making votes cast by various groupings of Diet members the likely key to the outcome.

While Kan can rely on support from about 110 lawmakers (40 from his group, and 40 and 30, respectively, from anti-Ozawa groups led by Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara and Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda), Ozawa leads the largest group in the party (about 150 members) and will be backed by a group of about 50 lawmakers in Hatoyama’s group.

Much attention will be placed on the voting intentions of the remaining 100 or so lawmakers, including a grouping of about 30 left-leaning lawmakers who moved to the DPJ from the Social Democratic Party and 30 affiliated with the defunct Democratic Socialist Party.

When the DPJ swept to power last summer, many had hoped for an end to the factionalism of old school LDP politics. But these pronounced internal loyalties betray the DPJ’s much-trumpeted battle cry of ‘change.’

Yet no matter who prevails in the election, the DPJ will struggle to recover from this gaping schism in loyalties.

While Kan has publicly welcomed Ozawa’s decision to run, even in victory, his mandate to lead the country would be diminished. This would especially ring true if Ozawa, like an old dog playing a long-practiced trick (he has previously formed and dissolved two political parties), quit the DPJ and formed a new party with his backers. Such a scenario would leave the DPJ struggling to find the necessary numbers to govern and force a general election.

If Ozawa wins, he would become the nation’s third prime minister in less than six months. Yet he would come under intense pressure to go to the ballot box, where he would face a frosty public unimpressed that he has yet to fully explain his role in the alleged ‘money politics’ scandal.

Whatever the outcome (and no doubt there will be speculation about a ‘grand coalition’ between the LDP and DPJ), the only real winner of the leadership election seems to be LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki and his (at learning of Ozawa’s decision) band of merry men.

The LDP hierarchy can just put their feet up and hope for the DPJ to implode in the latest soap opera starring Ichiro Ozawa.