His political future in the balance, Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa caught a much needed break Tuesday when prosecutors chose to limit their indictment of his chief secretary to violating the Political Funds Control Law and forgoing perhaps more damaging charges related to rigging bids for public works projects.
Nevertheless, though DPJ members have expressed their willingness to stand behind Ozawa, the largest opposition party has its work cut out. The money scandal surrounding Ozawa can only harm the party’s chances in the next Lower House election, which must be held by fall.
Some political experts suggest DPJ executives will be hard pressed to clarify the party’s stance on the regulation of political funds even as they scramble to unite the party behind a scandal-tainted leader.
“I think the unpleasantness isn’t over for the DPJ,” said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
Okubo was indicted by the special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office for allegedly receiving illegal corporate donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co.
Political watchers, however, had been waiting to see if other serious charges would be leveled. Media reports have suggested that not only Okubo but Ozawa himself may have served as go-betweens for Nishimatsu and another major construction company to rig bids on public works projects in the Tohoku region, Ozawa’s home and stronghold.
Many DPJ members apparently still want to keep open the possibility of replacing Ozawa if further damaging information emerges during the course of the investigation and a possible trial of Okubo.
During a meeting Tuesday of Lower House DPJ members, Katsuhiko Yokomitsu became the first party member to openly call for a “new DPJ” with new leadership ahead of the next election.
“If we go about maintaining our solidarity in the wrong way, I think the DPJ will lose the people’s trust,” Yokomitsu told reporters later in the day, adding he thinks Ozawa should quit so the party can unite under a new leader.
“It’s certain that Ozawa’s leadership has been shaken, so keeping the party united will be a bigger hurdle than before,” said Yu Uchiyama, an associate political science professor at the University of Tokyo.
“The DPJ is talking about completely banning corporate donations, and it’s an open question whether they can pull it off under Ozawa,” Uchiyama said.
Despite the recent woes, DPJ-led opposition forces have held the line in the Upper House, where they are in the majority, blocking or delaying enactment of a number of key government-sponsored bills.
But growing public anger over Ozawa’s money scandal may discourage the DPJ from staying on the offensive in the Diet, fearing a backlash from already angry voters, Nonaka said.
According to a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun and Waseda University on March 14 and 15, 60 percent of respondents said they were disappointed with the DPJ, a 10 percentage point rise.
“The DPJ must keep an eye on its support rate, not to mention those of the Liberal Democratic Party and Prime Minister Taro Aso,” Nonaka said. “If the approval rate for the LDP and Aso goes up, I think the DPJ will start to be combative in the Diet again.”
Public opinion will be a key factor in any decision Ozawa makes about resignation.
As for a new leader, Nonaka said the DPJ still has a trump card to play: former DPJ President Katsuya Okada. The 55-year-old Okada is thought to have clean hands with regard to political funds and is considered the front-runner for the next DPJ president.
Nonaka said that although some party members would probably prefer not to anoint Okada as DPJ leader, the party may have a better chance under him than Ozawa given his relative youth and clean image.