The Democratic Party of Japan’s major election victory Sunday was what acting President Ichiro Ozawa had been aiming for, ensuring his influence on the political scene will grow further.
Having been forced to resign as party president and retreat to the background because of an funds scandal, Ozawa, 67, will not be able to celebrate the DPJ’s Lower House poll win as party chief.
But he still wields considerable influence in the party that managed to end the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party, to which Ozawa once belonged.
If not for the fundraising scandal that forced him from the DPJ presidency more than three months ago, Ozawa would have been on track to become the next prime minister, instead of his successor, Yukio Hatoyama.
But becoming prime minister may in any case have been a secondary aim for Ozawa, who has staked much of his political capital on an even greater goal — ending the LDP’s almost uninterrupted stranglehold on politics since 1955 and creating a viable two-party system.
In announcing his resignation from the party helm May 11, Ozawa said his decision was for the DPJ’s sake and to enable the party to achieve a change of government in the poll for the powerful House of Representatives.
Ever since retreating to the background, Ozawa has been focusing on battling the LDP.
He toured districts nationwide, handpicked candidates and passed on to them his experience of campaigning, including making door-to-door visits from town to town to woo voters.
Thanks to his well-calculated strategy, which he learned from the late former kingmaker and Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the DPJ is on track to rack up more than 300 seats in the 480-member lower chamber, way more than its pre-election 115.
“He (Ozawa) is the one who is about to deliver this big win for the party,” said Eiken Itagaki, a political analyst who has written books on the DPJ.
Of the DPJ’s 271 candidates for the 300 single-seat districts, 114 are political novices. Ozawa directly invited most of them to run in the election, trained them and even offered them campaign funds.
Given his clout, some DPJ members are becoming cautious that his influence within the party will grow and the DPJ may maintain a dual power structure centered on Ozawa and Hatoyama, who is often described as Ozawa’s “puppet.”
The current strength of the Ozawa group in the DPJ comes to around 50, but the number could easily top 150 after Sunday’s election and even 200 if he leads the campaign for the next House of Councilors election, slated next summer, analysts said.
“With the presence of ‘Ozawa’s children’ growing, he would be able to control them any way he wants,” Itagaki said, adding that Ozawa may even try to run as party president again if the Hatoyama administration proves short-lived.
Harumi Arima, a political analyst, also predicted Ozawa’s power could grow to a level where he would be able to leave the DPJ along with his proteges and possibly overhaul the entire political landscape.
“While having Mr. Hatoyama go on the campaign trail, Mr. Ozawa was working hard behind the scenes to get closer to his own political goal,” Arima said, adding that he believes Ozawa wants to realign the political system to bring together politicians who share ideologies.
Ozawa was so focused and geared up for this election out of his belief that it would be his last chance to bring about a change of government, something he felt the time was ripe for.
But his quest to wrest power from the LDP started many years ago.
The Keio University-educated son of a Lower House lawmaker from Iwate Prefecture, Ozawa won his first seat in 1969 at the age of 27.
A protege of Tanaka, he served in prominent LDP and government posts until June 1993, when he left the party as a result of a factional feud stemming from a corruption scandal involving Shin Kanemaru, another famous kingmaker who looked after Ozawa.
He then helped to wrest power from the LDP in 1993, removing the party from government for the first time in its 38-year history. However, the multiparty administration that took over the government didn’t last long, allowing the LDP to make a comeback after only 11 months.
In his 1993 book, “Nippon Kaizo Keikaku,” (“Project to Reform Japan”), Ozawa played up the need for creation of a two-party system to foster more responsible administrations.
The DPJ’s supreme adviser, Hirohisa Fujii, a close ally of Ozawa, said in an interview that Ozawa had advocated a two-party system since the 1980s.
As part of laying the groundwork for nurturing an opposition party to challenge the dominance of the LDP, Ozawa proposed in the book that the electoral system be changed to one in which a single candidate won in each constituency, instead of one in which multiple candidates were selected.
According to this rationale, the winner in a single-seat district can be predicted easily and hence secure more votes, increasing the chances of a change of government.
He succeeded in getting a law enacted to introduce the winner-take-all system under the short-lived non-LDP administration of Morihiro Hosokawa in 1994.
Ozawa’s career then took various twists and turns until he merged his Liberal Party with the DPJ in September 2003. He kept a low profile until being elected party leader in April 2006 and started in earnest forging ahead with his plan to bring about a shift in power.
But observers say Ozawa wavers when he faces a choice between “a change of power” or “seizing power.”
In one conspicuous instance, Ozawa agreed to entertain an overture from then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to form a grand coalition. The move sparked fierce criticism from his DPJ colleagues and ended in Ozawa having to back down and abandon the idea.
But in Sunday’s historic rout, Ozawa managed to drive the LDP from power for a second time.
Analysts say he will continue to act as a “backroom fixer” for months or years and will be able to exercise great influence in what has become the new ruling party.