The photos and footage of opposition lawmakers trying to prevent a July 25 vote in the Upper House on a Liberal Democratic Party-sponsored bill to send Self-Defense Forces to Iraq were all over the media last week, which is understandable considering how action-packed the Three Stooges-like melee was. Though Liberal Party member Yuko Mori and her slit skirt received the most attention, it was the LDP’s Atsushi Onita who exemplified the meaning of the brawl. Onita is a professional wrestler. By protecting Foreign and Defense Affairs Committee Chairman Ryuji Matsumura from the opposition “ruffians,” he was finally putting his talents to good use in the service of his party.

The spectacle reinforced an image most people have of the political process: The ruling coalition doing what it pleases and the opposition vainly trying to stop it. The violence was a grand but empty gesture. Similarly, the planned merger announced two weeks ago between the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party was met with derision in the press, which simply saw it as another desperate attempt to lay siege to the LDP’s impenetrable fortress of public support. But by the end of last weekend, the skepticism had mostly dissipated.

An Asahi Shimbun survey that came out in the middle of last week found that the LDP and the DPJ were neck-and-neck in terms of public support. And in a poll conducted by TV Asahi over the weekend, DPJ chief Naoto Kan rose from third position to second as the politician people most wanted to see as prime minister.

These changes were interpreted by some as a momentary blip in the public’s consciousness about the merger, but they may have pointed to something deeper. During the previous week, when Kan and Liberal Party boss Ichiro Ozawa appeared together on major news shows, they made a strong impression.

Ozawa had been the main sticking point. As he said last week on TV Asahi’s Sunday morning talk show, “Sunday Project,” the press’s initial skepticism about the merger ” was mainly a reaction to me.” Ozawa has always been vilified as a political opportunist. When he was coming up in the LDP, he switched factions several times and then eventually split to form his own party. He was notoriously rude to the media, who responded in kind.

The LDP is trying to paint the merger as another act of desperation, using Ozawa’s reputation as an opportunist to disparage it. Ozawa doesn’t necessarily deny that he’s being opportunistic, and pundits have said that the timing of the merger is important since it siphons some media attention away from the LDP in-fighting prior to the fall elections. Ozawa says that his goal is to wrestle the leadership away from the LDP, and he’ll do anything to accomplish it, including making up with the media.

As Soichiro Tahara, the journalist who hosts “Sunday Project,” pointed out, the merger is really not a merger. “The DPJ is essentially engulfing the Liberal Party,” he said, since the DPJ is bigger and Kan will remain the president. Ozawa said he will simply be a “soldier.”

Ozawa and Kan said that opportunism, in fact, is the whole reason for the LDP’s existence. The party’s political activities have nothing to do with governing. It’s all about factions and favors. Of the 122 bills passed during the last Diet session, only a few were drafted by lawmakers themselves. The rest originated in the bureaucracy, which the LDP serves unstintingly.

Despite grumblings of “fascism” within the LDP’s ranks about Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s plan to make a “manifesto” for the upcoming LDP presidential and general elections, in the end all the LDP members will have to rally behind him if they want to be re-elected. Kan said that if the DPJ gains the leadership, it will draft its own bills. More significantly, it will not send troops to Iraq.

It is the controversial Iraq bill that could turn out to be the DPJ’s strongest point in the election. Though the general populace say they are mainly worried about the recession, their unease with the dispatch of Japanese soldiers to a country still at war is well-reported in the media. An open letter written by Kiyohiko Koike, the mayor of a town in Niigata who was once an SDF official, has received scrutiny for its point-by-point refutation of the LDP bill, which was rammed through because Koizumi made a promise to the U.S. administration.

In the letter, Koike says that the bill contradicts the spirit of the SDF, which is supposed to defend Japan. A possible outcome will be the return of a military draft because no one will want to volunteer for an organization that can be sent overseas to war zones. In the past, Ozawa was often pegged as a militarist, mainly because of a comment he made that Japan should become “a normal country,” meaning one with a standing army. On its Web site, the Liberal Party states that it believes in the “right of collective self-defense,” and that the dispatch of troops overseas should only be carried out in line with international accords sanctioned by the United Nations, which the proposed Iraqi dispatch is not.

These two ideas — rejection of the Iraqi bill and the normalization of a genuine Self-Defense Force — are closer to those of the average Japanese person than the average Japanese person is to the LDP. The average Japanese does not want SDF forces to be sent overseas where there is a possibility, as even Koizumi admitted, “that we may be killed or we may kill,” and with the threat of North Korea looming large, more people now feel that the SDF is necessary. If the new DPJ can convey these ideas to voters, then the election in the fall could prove to be very interesting indeed.

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