Staff writers

When Ichiro Ozawa left the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993 in the hope of acting as a catalyst for political realignment, he was dubbed the standard-bearer for the creation of a two-party system in Japan.

Now, six years and several political upheavals later, the survival of both Ozawa and the Liberal Party he heads seems to hinge on whether his old home will tolerate his return.

Unofficial merger talks between the two conservative parties, which reportedly began early this month, are at a stalemate due to the objections of a number of LDP members, and sources say negotiations will not resume until mid-December, when the current Diet session ends.

Political observers say the future of the Liberal Party will be bleak if the merger falls through, because its chances of performing well in the next general election, which must be held by next October, are slim.

“Over half of the (39 Lower House) members of the Liberal Party will lose their seats in the next election,” predicted Takayoshi Miyagawa, who heads the private election research firm Center for Political Public Relations Inc.

Miyagawa said he believes the Liberal Party will win no more than five of the 300 single-seat constituency seats in the 500-member Lower House, and the total number it will capture, even including those gained through proportional representation, will not exceed 20.

In that respect, a merger with the LDP may be Ozawa’s last trump card. Of the 43 LDP Diet members who put their fate in his hands and defected with him, only eight remain by his side in the Liberal Party today.

Many of the other Liberal Party members and prospective Lower House candidates have relatively little election experience and a merger with the LDP would enable them to avoid running against LDP rivals, many of whom have stable local support bases, because the two parties would cooperate on candidates and constituencies.

At present, the two parties are expected to separately field candidates in more than 60 of the 300 single-seat constituencies.

Many observers say Ozawa’s pursuit of a merger is a pipe dream. The LDP, which has already decided on its candidate hopefuls in most constituencies, is reluctant to make room for the Liberal Party, they point out.

“It would be hard to select one (out of two candidates). You just can’t think of a merger (without solving the conflicts over candidacies),” LDP lawmaker Shozo Harada said.

The merger row has also irritated senior LDP figures who charge that merging with a former enemy without a clear consensus on policy would result in a crushing setback for the LDP in the next election.

What’s more, the turbulence rocking the LDP by the proposed merger does not stem from election concerns alone. The idea has brought to the surface the objections LDP members have over Ozawa’s heavy-handed political maneuvering as well as his policies.

The friendships — and animosities — run deep, even after six years. So deep that some politicians, including former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan and a former Ozawa ally, said they suspect the proposed merger is an effort to trigger another shakeup of the LDP and revive the two-party ideal.

The LDP’s divisiveness on the merger is so great that even senior party officials who are supportive, including Secretary General Yoshiro Mori, opted to put it on the back burner in order to maintain the fragile power balance among the party’s factions.

With little prospect of a merger in the near future, the most likely course for Ozawa would be to have the Liberal Party remain where it is now — a partner with the LDP and New Komeito in the ruling coalition — while maintaining his brinkmanship and fully utilizing the media, according to political analyst Minoru Morita.

Ozawa often argues that his party would be better off if it leaves the triumvirate and faces the next election on its own if its policy views are not taken seriously.

Such tough talking is a trademark of Ozawa’s, and even though many see it as a bluff, this may be his and his party’s lifeline.

“If (the Liberal Party) does indeed leave the coalition, the party will probably break up,” Morita said. “That means the game is over for Ozawa.”

Ozawa’s only concern now is how to get his “followers” to survive the next election, Morita said, adding that to do so, he has little choice but to stay within the coalition and threaten to leave whenever his party’s position is made light of.

“The age when everybody followed him no matter what he did is over now. I call this the tragedy of Ichiro Ozawa,” Morita said.

“When Ozawa left the LDP in 1993, he was confident that he would be leading one of the two major parties under the two-party system he aimed to establish,” Senshu University Professor Takeshi Nakai observed.

“But now that this has turned out to be impossible, I think he hopes to return to the LDP and form his own group, thereby realizing his ideal of a two-party system within the LDP,” Nakai said.

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