The ruling Democratic Party of Japan reinstated the party membership of Ichiro Ozawa on Tuesday, a move that intensifies the power struggle over a proposed tax hike the DPJ heavyweight opposes and opens the door for him to run in the party presidential election in September, when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s term expires.
Members of the DPJ Standing Officers Council made the decision following a ruling last month by the Tokyo District Court exonerating Ozawa of falsifying the political funds report of his fund management body.
Lawyers who acted as prosecutors at Ozawa’s trial will decide Wednesday whether to appeal the decision to the high court. Some party members, including policy chief Seiji Maehara, were against lifting Ozawa’s membership freeze before the lawyers’ decision.
Ozawa is apparently trying to use the unpopular tax hike plan advocated by the fiscally hawkish prime minister to rally anti-Noda forces within the DPJ.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said Noda, already reeling from falling support rates in media polls, will face an even rockier road ahead.
“About one-third of the DPJ members are Ozawa loyalists and they can exert influence” over the fate of the tax hike bill, which seeks to double the current 5 percent sales tax to cover swelling social security costs, Nakano said.
Noda is facing an uphill battle in the current Diet session, which ends in June, to pass the government-sponsored tax hike bill.
Deliberations on the social security and tax reform plan in the Diet began Tuesday. A special committee on the reform plan will begin deliberations May 16.
“If (Ozawa) is a DPJ member, he should agree (with the tax hike plan). I want all members to follow the rule,” Noda said in April.
DPJ executives say they will not give Ozawa an important post in the party for the time being, considering that he is a strong opponent of the tax hike plan, and that the Liberal Democratic Party and its former ally, New Komeito, have strongly criticized Ozawa for his alleged responsibility for the money scandal.
Because they control the Upper House, support from the opposition parties is critical if the DPJ is to pass legislation in the Diet.
DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi said Monday he “isn’t worried” that reinstating Ozawa’s membership will lead the LDP and New Komeito to criticize his party.
But Nakano noted the opposition can score easy political points by criticizing Ozawa, as public distrust toward him remains strong.
According to a recent poll by major daily Mainichi Shimbun, 53 percent of respondents said it is “unnecessary” to lift Ozawa’s membership suspension.
“Even though the court ruled Ozawa is not guilty, the public distrust is deep-rooted. The LDP knows that well, so they may say they won’t cooperate as long as Ozawa is in power, aiming to divide the DPJ,” Nakano said.
Some speculate Ozawa may eventually leave the DPJ to form a new political group, a theory Nakano discounts due to the veteran lawmaker’s unpopularity and likely inability to attract votes in the next general election.