Tokyo Notes

Ozawa Relents, Will Testify

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Tokyo Notes

Ozawa Relents, Will Testify

Ruling party kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa is seemingly pressured into appearing before the Diet. But what’s in it for him?

It seems that sufficient pressure can crack even the most stubborn resistance. After months of refusing to testify in front of a Diet committee over alleged involvement in a political funding scandal, Japanese ruling party kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa has finally relented.

But what deals were struck under the table?

Ozawa on Tuesday told former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, his tag-team partner, that he would voluntarily stand before a lower house political ethics panel to explain the creative accounting allegations involving his Rikuzankai funding body.

At a brief press conference shortly after 2 p.m., Ozawa gave ostensibly benevolent reasons for testifying. He said that by standing, he could help bring about party unity and enable debate to proceed in the upcoming ordinary Diet session, with the hope of swiftly passing a budget that would benefit the livelihoods of the nation’s citizens. He went to say that he had informed DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada of his decision.

The announcement came after days of serious arm-twisting by members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s hierarchy. On Monday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan effectively told Ozawa, a former president of the DPJ during its opposition days, to speak up or pack his bags. Kan told reporters that Ozawa should ‘make his intentions clear’ if he can’t comply with the party decision. He used the expression ‘Shussho Shintai,’ which in Japanese political jargon is commonly used to imply that someone should quit, especially if they don’t toe the line.

Kan’s comments followed a decision earlier that day by DPJ executives that the panel should hold a vote before the next regular Diet session commences (around mid-January) on summoning Ozawa to appear before it. On Sunday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, no fan of Ozawa, suggested on a TV programme that Ozawa should leave the party after his expected mandatory indictment in January.

The testimony in front of the panel is, however, nonbinding. For this reason, the major opposition Liberal Democratic Party (as well as DPJ members unfriendly to Ozawa) is vociferously calling instead for Ozawa to give sworn testimony in the Diet.

Surely the ‘Shadow Shogun’ hasn’t lost his appetite for a political scrap, so what has persuaded him to change his tune?

After issuing what is tantamount to an ultimatum to Ozawa, Kan also signalled that he was considering shuffling his Cabinet pack again. Speculation has been rife that Kan is willing to sacrifice Sengoku, the party’s top spokesman, and Transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi (both of whom the LDP targeted recently with nonbinding censure motions). Could this mean that Kan has a gentleman’s agreement in place with Ozawa to find him a leading position in the government after shunning him and his supporters following a fraught leadership election this autumn?

Another possible reason for a deal is Ozawa’s sheer presence in the party. It has been said that Japan could still be stuck with an effective one-party democracy had Ozawa not been around to shake the nation’s political ship. The DPJ would unlikely have become the force it is (or exist at all) without Ozawa’s backroom string-pulling and masterful electoral planning, and his departure could have brought about the collapse of the current DPJ regime and a premature general election. Ozawa could also have tempted dozens of lawmakers (especially first-termers dubbed ‘Ozawa’s children’) into a new party, but a party break-up now looks increasingly unlikely given Ozawa’s decision to testify.

While this offers Kan (whose Cabinet ratings are at an all-time low) a few crumbs of comfort, it seems he will now have the overbearing force of Ozawa on his back for the remainder of his premiership. It’s now a question of how Kan and other senior DPJ members (including Ozawa) can pull together to unite the party and, more pertinently, implement effective policy.

Ozawa, it has to be remembered, still has to testify in the Diet and also faces indictment, so it’s a little too early to predict a happy New Year for the DPJ.