Ozawa’s sway over DPJ remains absolute

Even if he is forced to resign over scandal, kingpin will still rule from behind the scenes

by Jun Hongo

Defying prosecutors and claiming his innocence over a shady 2004 land purchase, Ichiro Ozawa has shown no indications of giving up his status as the administration’s kingpin.

Experts say regardless of what the investigation may reveal in the future, Ozawa’s persistence in holding onto his post as secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan could become a thorn in Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s side.

Having Ozawa at the forefront will only continue to provide an easy target for Hatoyama’s opponents, especially at a special Diet meeting next month scheduled by the ruling coalition and the opposition to debate control over political funds, they said.

“If things continue the way they are, I’d say there is a 50 percent chance Ozawa will step down by the end of March” when the Diet is scheduled to pass the fiscal 2010 budget, political analyst Minoru Morita predicted. By the time the current Diet session closes in mid-June, the odds could go as high as 75 percent, he said.

“Whether Ozawa will decide to resign depends on how long the DPJ can sustain its monolithic unity and support him,” Morita said, adding the alliance could crumble if opinion polls continue to show shrinking public support.

The latest media polls show Hatoyama’s approval rate dipping below 50 percent, with 80 percent to 90 percent of the public saying Ozawa’s explanations on the unregistered land purchase have been unsatisfactory.

Analysts say the DPJ is already past the point of no return, with Hatoyama openly telling reporters he will continue supporting his colleague as he attempts to prove his innocence. If the DPJ were to bench their ace now, it wouldn’t only damage Hatoyama’s credibility but also the party’s game plan to have Ozawa spearhead the crucial Upper House election that is less than six months away.

The current allegations against Ozawa center on the source of a ¥400 million fund that was used in an unregistered purchase of Tokyo land in October 2004. He has insisted the money came from his own pocket, but the arrests of his former aides look bad and statements by construction firm officials suspected of providing the money contradict this assertion.

Regardless, the chances of Ozawa being arrested by prosecutors are slim at this point, according to political analyst Eiken Itagaki.

“Arresting Ozawa would be a demanding process because the Diet is in session and lawmakers have immunity,” said Itagaki, an independent analyst well-versed in DPJ politics.

Arresting Ozawa after the session also would be tricky, considering that the public would be highly suspicious of the prosecutors’ motives should the lawmaker be taken into custody just days before the July election.

Itagaki said the prosecutors don’t have clear-cut evidence proving Ozawa did anything wrong and outside factors are unlikely to cause him to step down.

Meanwhile, internal DPJ demands for Ozawa to resign haven’t built up any momentum and members remain cautious about criticizing their don. Analysts say the silence within the party confirms Ozawa’s indisputable power.

For example, a majority of newcomers elected in the 2009 general election see Ozawa as not only the party’s secretary general but also their mentor. Fresh faces handpicked and fielded by Ozawa personally for the historic win — including the “Ozawa Girls” like Ai Aoki and Kazumi Ota — are unlikely to shed their loyalty to the DPJ kingpin, analysts say.

Veteran politicians also are not immune to Ozawa’s command, with speculation running high that the resignation of Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii earlier this month had to do with more than his health. Fujii had a falling out with Ozawa last year after he openly criticized then-DPJ President Ozawa over a different political money scandal.

The opposition has tried to illustrate the DPJ’s blind faith in and dependency on Ozawa as despotism, hitting the party hard for its autocratic structure.

“It is time to fight Ozawa’s dictatorship,” LDP chief Sadakazu Tanigaki said at a party convention last weekend.

For all the relentless criticism from the other side of the aisle, the DPJ secretary general has only apologized for the turmoil and refuses to step down.

“For now, I feel it is my duty to fulfill the tasks in this position with my utmost efforts,” Ozawa said Monday.

If his reign continues, many observers say, the LDP will hammer away on the money scandal until the July election while slamming Hatoyama for depending on Ozawa to formulate policy. The unceasing attack could keep eroding the DPJ’s approval rate until eventually the pressure on Ozawa becomes unbearable, as was the case when he stepped down as DPJ president last spring when an aide was charged with accepting illicit donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co. on behalf of Ozawa’s fund management body, Rikuzankai.

But many point out there are few strong figures in the DPJ who could replace Ozawa, especially when it comes to strategizing a way for the party to win a majority in the July Upper House poll.

DPJ Deputy Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi and Diet affairs chief Kenji Yamaoka would top any list of successors, with both having close ties with Ozawa. But they have less command over the party’s large and diverse group of lawmakers than Ozawa, and each lacks the charisma to lead the party in the coming crucial campaign.

The possibility of the DPJ stripping Ozawa of sway and replacing him with a fresh face is doubtful, analyst Morita said.

“At this point, the largest fear for the DPJ is Ozawa splitting from the party and taking with him about 150 of his loyal lawmakers,” Morita said, explaining that such a move would have a far greater impact than losing the Upper House election.

“That very fear is what keeps DPJ members from speaking out about Ozawa’s shady acts,” Morita said.

Meanwhile, analyst Itagaki said Ozawa will prevail even if stepping down as secretary general becomes inevitable.

“If things turn out that way, Ozawa could still have power over the DPJ. He could easily manage the DPJ’s election campaign from behind the scenes,” Itagaki said.

In fact, Ozawa staying out of the spotlight would diminish the impact of the LDP’s efforts to play up the shady fund transfers, he said.

“Ozawa’s influence over the party will not fade as long as his political career goes on,” Itagaki added.