The political career of Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who has been at the center stage of politics for more than 20 years, was effectively crushed Monday when the Tokyo No. 5 Inquest Committee decided to indict him over falsified political funds reports, political observers said.

The indictment of the disgraced party don, however, could help solidify Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s political base in the DPJ and improve his opinion poll ratings if he manages to force Ozawa out of the ruling party or weaken his clout within, they said.

“Ozawa is now a defendant in a criminal trial. His political career is effectively over,” political commentator Hirotada Asakawa said.

Asakawa said Ozawa is likely to leave on his own or be forced by a DPJ-issued recommendation to leave in the near future.

Ozawa said in the runup to the Sept. 14 DPJ presidential race that he will neither leave nor resign as a Lower House lawmaker, even if indicted. But voices in the party are already urging him to do just that.

“He should voluntarily leave,” said Seishu Makino, the DPJ’s deputy chief of Diet affairs. “If he can’t do that, the party is likely to issue a recommendation to leave the party or even expel him.”

Asakawa said, Kan’s Cabinet lacks the energy to protect Ozawa from the opposition’s constant attacks.

“Kan’s administration already has its hands full with Diet deliberations, such as the Senkaku issue and the economic stimulus package,” he said. “It doesn’t have the energy for anything else.”

The public support rate for Kan’s Cabinet has been damaged by his handling of the fishing boat spat with China in the East China Sea.

Many in the public blasted the administration for caving in to Chinese pressure to release the skipper, who had been arrested.

What normally happens when a DPJ member is prosecuted is that the lawmaker either voluntarily leaves the party or is issued a recommendation to do so.

Tomohiro Ishikawa, a former Ozawa secretary, resigned from the DPJ in February after he was arrested and indicted over his alleged mishandling of political funds.

If Ozawa’s exit is inevitable, the next question for the DPJ is whether his followers will go with him.

Tomoaki Iwai, professor of political science at Nihon University, said that even though Ozawa has about 20 loyal followers, it is unlikely they will depart with Ozawa, let alone trigger a political realignment.

“He is 68 years old facing a long criminal trial,” Iwai said. “Nobody is going to leave with him.”

Although the prosecution of Ozawa may deal a blow to Kan’s administration in the short term, it will allow Kan to secure his political base in the long run, Iwai said.

“It means a total defeat for the Ozawa group,” he said. “If Kan had appointed many of Ozawa’s close aides to his Cabinet, it would trigger criticism. But it only proved that Kan’s decision to exclude Ozawa’s supporters from his Cabinet was right.”

Some pundits are concerned that taking a strong stance against Ozawa will only lead to more internal squabbling.

“If he is forced out of the party, it will only lead to a power struggle,” said Fusao Ushiro, professor of politics at Nagoya University. “That would only cause confusion in a divided Diet.”

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