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Ozawa weighs next move

The attention of many political observers appears to be focused on when and how, rather than if, Ichiro Ozawa will step down as the leader of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan before the next general election due to take place no later than September.

One influential party leader has been quoted as saying that 80 percent of DPJ lawmakers think Ozawa should step down in the aftermath of the arrest and indictment of his official secretary, while the remaining 20 percent favor his leading the party to an election victory.

Ozawa’s secretary, Takanori Okubo, was arrested and indicted in March on charges of falsifying a report on political contributions to his boss — at a time when Ozawa appeared to have a fair chance of leading his party to an election victory and thus becoming the next prime minister.

One former Cabinet minister with strong ties to Ozawa has said there is at least a 50-50 chance of his resigning; the timing would be dictated by how prosecutors proceed with their investigations into the scandal involving Okubo.

When Okubo was arrested, there was strong speculation that the case was just the tip of the iceberg and that the scandal would spread to other politicians, including high ranking members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. This has not proved to be the case, and it is now generally believed that the criminal investigations will be completed around the middle of this month, clearing the way for the court trial of Okubo and senior executives of Nishimatsu Construction Co. who allegedly provided funds to Ozawa in violation of the political fund control law. Many insiders think Ozawa will have no choice but to resign ahead of the trial, but nothing seems to guarantee that he will.

There has been a conspicuous inconsistency in what Ozawa has said in response to the arrest of his secretary and the subsequent call for him to resign. On March 4, the day after Okubo’s arrest, Ozawa bitterly criticized the highhanded manner of the prosecutors, and categorically denied any possibility of resignation. On March 10, though, he made comments that were interpreted by his close associates as meaning that, although he would not resign immediately because that would be tantamount to bowing to the prosecutors, he would likely step down if his secretary was indicted.

Yet, within hours of his indictment March 24, he told a press conference that he would continue to lead his party to victory in the general election. This change of course apparently reflected the fact that Ozawa himself was spared police questioning. Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ secretary general and Ozawa’s closest confidant, persuaded other party leaders to accede to his wishes.

Members of Ozawa’s inner circles have become more confident that he should remain in office mainly for two reasons: One is that they think the general public have begun to understand that prosecutors acted highhandedly in arresting and indicting his secretary. The other is that the DPJ fared relatively well in local elections in March and April.

Opinion polls taken by major newspapers show somewhat different results, however. Immediately after Okubo’s arrest, the percentage of those who thought Ozawa should resign was 53 percent in a Yomiuri Shimbun poll and 57 percent in an Asahi Shimbun poll. The figures shot up to 63 percent (Asahi) and 66 percent (Yomiuri) between late March and early April, and even to 72 percent in a Mainichi Shimbun poll in mid-April. Late in April, an Asahi poll showed 61 percent of the respondents calling for Ozawa’s resignation.

Yasuo Tanaka, the leader of the New Party Nippon and Ozawa’s protege, insists that these poll results are meaningless and should be ignored. But a number of senior DPJ officials are more inclined to think that Ozawa must step down before the election. As one said: “Only about 20 percent of DPJ lawmakers are in favor of Ozawa remaining in his post, while the other 80 percent think he should resign. I would like to see Ozawa face this tendency squarely.”

Even Shizuka Kamei, head of the People’s New Party who defended Ozawa after his secretary’s arrest, now says the DPJ would suffer a resounding defeat if it fought the upcoming general election under Ozawa’s leadership.

More blatant calls for Ozawa’s resignation were expressed at a April 22 rally in support of Seiji Maehara, deputy head of the DPJ who seems to be distancing himself from Ozawa. Kozo Watanabe, former deputy Lower House speaker and senior adviser for the DPJ, hinted that many DPJ candidates would prefer not to have Ozawa’s picture printed on their campaign posters, just as many LDP candidates shy away from being photographed with Prime Minister Taro Aso. The party’s leader should be a source of pride for candidates, he added.

Yoshito Sengoku, former DPJ Policy Board chairman, was even more frank. He said a majority of voters are looking for an end to politics run by questionable money.

Maehara said the following day that, although it is up to Ozawa to decide whether to resign before the election, the party must go through a “self-cleansing” if there is any doubt of winning the election under the incumbent leadership. “Not much time is left,” he added.

Maehara was not suggesting that his supporters would rise up against Ozawa immediately, as Hatoyama is maintaining a balance between pro- and anti-Ozawa forces within the party.

Will the pro-resignation group succeed in persuading Ozawa through Hatoyama to step down? If Ozawa does step down, will the DPJ be able to build a new structure under either Hatoyama or Katsuya Okada, the deputy party chief? Everything is in the hands of Ozawa, and there is no way of excluding the possibility of his deciding to remain as party leader.

The timing of the next election will undoubtedly be an important factor. With neither the pro- nor anti-Ozawa groups within the DPJ showing any sign of compromise, the tug of war between them is entering its final act.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic issues.