Days of Ozawa’s influence seen dwindling

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Yoshihiko Noda’s victory against Banri Kaieda in the Democratic Party of Japan presidential runoff Monday dealt yet another blow to disgraced kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, who backed Kaieda in an apparent bid to boost his waning influence.

Kaieda’s defeat and Noda’s subsequent installation as prime minister Tuesday effectively scotched any effort by Ozawa to retain his role as the behind-the-scenes power broker and “shadow shogun,” and may symbolize a step away from a DPJ leadership long dominated by the “troika” of Ozawa, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Noda’s predecessor, Naoto Kan.

Monday’s race was the third party presidential election since the DPJ came to power in 2009 that Ozawa has failed to work to his advantage, leading some pundits to conclude the veteran lawmaker’s time at the forefront of politics may be near an end.

At a meeting with fellow lawmakers immediately after the runoff, Ozawa reportedly said, “177 votes is a respectable number, but a defeat is a defeat,” referring to the number of votes Kaieda managed to receive.

While Ozawa, who heads the ruling party’s largest faction of roughly 120 lawmakers, was able to mobilize his allies to place Kaieda at the front of the race in the first round of votes, Noda emerged victorious in the second round after receiving the backing of former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and farm minister Michihiko Kano.

Symbolic of Ozawa’s weakening clout within the party was Kano’s backing of Noda. Kano, currently serving his 11th term as a Lower House lawmaker, was said to be on relatively good terms with Ozawa and had appealed for his support after announcing his candidacy for the presidential race.

After losing in the first round and heading into the runoff, media reports said Kano took off his jacket, a signal for his supporters to vote for Noda. In the end, Noda collected 215 of the 392 eligible votes.

“Ozawa’s influence in the party will definitely be reduced,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.

“Ozawa relied too heavily on the power of numbers and made a tactical mistake by supporting Kaieda,” Iwai said, adding the outcome may have been different if Ozawa, say, cast his support behind Maehara.

Despite being considered “anti-Ozawa,” Maehara visited Ozawa’s office last week in an effort to garner his support in the election. Ozawa instead chose Kaieda, a candidate Iwai labeled as mediocre and indicative of Ozawa’s lack in foresight.

Ozawa’s backing of Kaieda may have also drawn negative reactions from lawmakers who felt a Kaieda victory would have only installed a puppet government controlled by Ozawa.

Ozawa, 69, had his party membership suspended earlier in the year after being indicted over a political money scandal, and was been forced to take a back seat during Kan’s prime ministership.

In the June 4, 2010, DPJ election that brought Kan to power, Ozawa, who resigned as party secretary general only two days before alongside then-Prime Minister Hatoyama, was unable to field a close candidate against Kan.

Ozawa himself declared his candidacy in last September’s DPJ presidential election, only to lose to Kan despite collecting a significant amount of votes from lawmakers. Kan then worked to remove Ozawa’s influence from the DPJ by excluding lawmakers close to him from influential posts.

But while Ozawa has been struggling to maintain a strong presence, Noda has shown signs that he intends to allocate lawmakers to leadership positions regardless of whether they’re for or against Ozawa, in a move to defuse tensions within the party.

Ozawa meanwhile hosted a meeting Tuesday inviting 30 close lawmakers and announced plans to consolidate the three groups of lawmakers he currently leads into one large group of roughly 100, a move seen as a way to strengthen solidarity among his allies in the face of his weakening influence.

But he will have tough times ahead. Three of his former secretaries will receive a court ruling next month for their involvement in falsifying records for Ozawa’s political funds management body, Rikuzankai, and Ozawa himself will stand trial in October.

Noda has indicated he doesn’t plan to lift Ozawa’s party suspension anytime soon, and it remains to be seen whether the new Cabinet and party leadership lineup will be beneficial to Ozawa’s standing.

“Ozawa will be able to maintain a certain level of influence in the party, but the situation nevertheless has become increasingly challenging for him,” Iwai of Nihon University said. “And he is getting old. I’m afraid things won’t be looking too good for him in the long run.”

Early Diet urged

KYODO

The two major opposition parties agreed Tuesday to seek an extraordinary Diet session starting Sept. 9, ahead of the date envisaged by the administration, lawmakers said.

The Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito want an earlier start, while the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration under new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wants the session to start Sept. 12.

Assuming Noda will attend the U.N. General Assembly session in New York in late September, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara and his New Komeito counterpart, Yoshihisa Inoue, are planning to call on the ruling party to convene the Diet session earlier so lawmakers can extend discussions based on Noda’s first policy speech as prime minister.