Tokyo Notes

Looming Ozawa Decision

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Tokyo Notes

Looming Ozawa Decision

Will heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa really stand in the soon-to-come leadership election?

Political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa will decide whether to stand in the ruling party’s leadership election in the next couple of days, according to a local media report on Wednesday.

The election will effectively decide who will be the Japanese prime minister, since the Democratic Party of Japan has a majority in the lower house, which chooses the nation’s premier.

Ozawa made the remark Tuesday night during a meeting with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, according the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major newspapers.

Ozawa, who stepped down as DPJ secretary general in May over the money in politics scandal linked to his funding organization, has been critical of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s backpedaling on the DPJ’s manifesto pledges. Ozawa’s entry into the presidential race would on one level present the party with a choice between returning to the manifesto or continuing along Kan’s reevaluation of those pledges in the light of the government’s financial difficulties.

My guess is that Ozawa will not stand despite a report, again in the Asahi, that one veteran politician close to him sees it as ’95 percent’ certain he will present his candidacy.

Even though large sectors of the DPJ may be unhappy with Kan’s sudden conversion to fiscal consolidation and apparent fall into the embrace of Finance Ministry bureaucrats, would they want to change leader yet again? While Ozawa is one of the major players of modern Japanese politics, would the party vote for a man who may be indicted shortly after becoming prime minister? Three of his aides already have been. Meanwhile, former party chiefs and intraparty group leaders Yukio Hatoyama, Katsuya Okada and Seji Maebara have already said they will back Kan. Surely the odds are stacked against an Ozawa triumph?

Ozawa will likely calculate that the risk he could lose against Kan is too great. If his participation would then only be a question of stimulating much needed policy debate within the party, surely it would be better for a member of Ozawa’s group to stand instead?

This would still leave the possibility of Ozawa putting his money and politics scandal behind him and waiting for Kan to get swept into the rocks as a result of a divided Diet that blocks his attempts to pass legislation, a scenario depicted in part by one of the Asahi's political writers. A Hollywood ending to this scenario would see Ozawa returning to a hero’s welcome and taking over as prime minister sometime next year. Provided of course his supporters don’t view him as spent force in the intervening period…