DPJ No. 2 eager to reinstate the don

Kyodo

Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi on Thursday said he was eager to restore former leader Ichiro Ozawa’s party membership following his acquittal in a drawn-out funds scandal.

The acquittal is “not surprising,” the close Ozawa ally told reporters, adding that he will initiate procedures in the party to do so after the Golden Week holidays end early next month.

The move will allow Ozawa to run in the DPJ’s presidential election in September, posing a challenge to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and the sales tax hike Noda is pushing.

DPJ executives who have kept their distance from Ozawa, such as policy chief Seiji Maehara, are cautious about lifting the suspension, which was imposed after Ozawa was specially indicted even though professional prosecutors had already dropped the case.

The DPJ could possibly face a split in the near future over how to deal with the savvy veteran, who was credited with the DPJ’s ascent to power in 2009 and now heads the largest faction in the ruling party, political analysts said.

Lawmakers who won their seats with Ozawa’s support celebrated when his acquittal was announced.

“I would like (him) to take command of the DPJ,” said Eri Tokunaga of the Upper House.

Government officials are already thinking about how Ozawa might try to bring down Noda’s Cabinet, which is trying double the consumption tax in a bid to shore up Japan’s fiscal health.

“I decline comment on a specific and concrete judgment by a court,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said at a news conference an hour after the acquittal. Still, Fujimura did not rule out the possibility that Ozawa and Noda will meet to discuss the tax hike and other matters they disagree about.

“We’ll keep an eye on how Ozawa’s group will move and how it will affect debate related to the bill,” another government official said.

The contentious bill, which the Cabinet approved late last month, aims to double the 5 percent sales tax in two stages, to 8 percent in April 2014 and 10 percent in October 2015.

On Thursday, a special committee to discuss social security and tax reforms was set up in the Lower House. To achieve his goal, Noda needs the opposition’s cooperation because the ruling camp lacks a majority in the Upper House.

But it will not be easy because the opposition parties are pressuring Ozawa to explain the scandal in the Diet and calling on Noda to expel its most prominent strategist from the DPJ.

Ozawa “should fulfill his accountability to the public” as a moral obligation, said New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi.

Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, effectively called on Noda to make a clean break with Ozawa.