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Ozawa’s residual influence

Even after being forced to resign as Democratic Party of Japan president because of a scandal involving his secretary, Ichiro Ozawa appears to exert strong influence over his successor, Yukio Hatoyama.

A second factor that may augur ill for the unity of the No. 1 opposition party ahead of the next general election (due no later than September) is that a number of DPJ lawmakers who had distanced themselves from Ozawa have rallied behind Katsuya Okada, who lost to Hatoyama in the party election to replace Ozawa.

Ozawa, 67, was forced to step down as the DPJ leader May 11 after his official secretary was arrested and indicted in connection with political contributions made by a major construction company. Five days later, in a contest between party secretary general Hatoyama, 62, and Okada, 56, DPJ lawmakers voted 124-95 to have Hatoyama succeed Ozawa. Hatoyama then named Okada, 56, as the new secretary general.

According to media opinion polls, the election of Hatoyama helped the DPJ recover some support lost in the scandal. Moreover, Hatoyama was favored over Prime Minister Taro Aso — president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — as the next head of government.

One ranking LDP party member now predicts that the DPJ has a good chance of winning 220 seats in the next Lower House election, though it may be difficult to win a majority in the 480-seat chamber.

Despite these seemingly favorable trends, the party leadership is trying to minimize Hatoyama’s opportunities to speak to the press. On the day he officially assumed the party presidency, for example, all interviews arranged with newspapers and television stations were called off because he was said to be preparing for the one-on-one debate with Prime Minister Aso a week later. The party also told the media that Hatoyama would answer only those questions put to him beforehand in writing.

Hirofumi Hirano, a close aide to Hatoyama, said the reason is that “One wrong statement from him on a major political issue could cost the party a victory in the election. Even though he is known for being friendly with the press, I am worried about his oral gaffes.”

What kind of “wrong statement” would DPJ members close to Hatoyama have in mind? Are they worried that Hatoyama might let out the extent to which Ozawa continues to influence party affairs?

When Hatoyama won the party presidential election with the strong backing of Ozawa, he thought of creating a new post for his predecessor to lead election campaigns. Ozawa nixed the idea because that would have placed him under secretary general Okada. Instead, Ozawa insisted on being made senior deputy leader of the party with power and authority to manage election campaigns. No way could Hatoyama turn down Ozawa’s demand because the new party leader owed so much to his predecessor for his election victory.

One of Ozawa’s close associates has confided that the former party leader now has complete control over election campaigns and money used for them, and that not even Hatoyama, let alone Okada, has any say in what Ozawa does.

Those close to the party leadership are afraid that if Hatoyama is allowed to speak to the press as he wishes, a slip of the tongue might reveal these and other inside stories to the party’s detriment ahead of the coming general election.

On the evening of May 20, 60 of the 95 DPJ lawmakers who had voted for Okada in the leadership election got together at a Tokyo hotel to express continued support for the new party secretary general. The participants included acting secretary general Yoshihiko Noda and deputy party leader Seiji Maehara. This gathering was regarded by many political insiders as the first step toward creating a new intraparty faction headed by Okada.

The DPJ is made up of a number of groups, both large and small. The biggest and most influential of those so far has been the group headed by Ozawa, which commands about 50 members. For a while, this group appeared to strengthen after joining forces with the group headed by Hatoyama. This arrangement could now change if the 95 DPJ lawmakers who supported Okada form a new faction, which in turn could become a threat to both Ozawa and Hatoyama.

A consensus among political observers is that a rift between the pro-Ozawa and the anti-Ozawa forces would not come to the fore before the general election, because until then the party will have to remain solidly united under the slogan of regime change. The big question is what will happen after the votes are counted.

If the DPJ fails to win enough seats in the Lower House to form a government on its own or build a coalition with other parties, Hatoyama will be held accountable and a bitter intraparty struggle for power will follow between the pro-Ozawa and anti-Ozawa groups.

Even if the DPJ replaces the LDP to head a new government, the party’s internal troubles will not end. Upon being named prime minister, Hatoyama would likely name Okada and other powerful figures to important Cabinet posts, which in turn would give Ozawa a free hand to manage party affairs. If Okada keeps his party position as secretary general, it will be next to impossible to avoid a head-on collision with Ozawa.

Hatoyama tries to keep calm by saying that after the election is over the party will remain united and everything will settle down. History shows, however, that no political power struggle involving Ozawa has ever ended peacefully. Win or lose, the DPJ will find that the results of the next general election will mark the beginning of a renewed internal feuding.

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