Sixteen Lower House members of the Democratic Party of Japan loyal to Ichiro Ozawa applied Thursday to leave the DPJ’s parliamentary group in the Diet and form a new group in an apparent attempt to pressure party leaders to back away from punishing the kingpin.

A parliamentary group is a body comprised of lawmakers who have agreed to vote the same. In most cases they are members of the same party. All DPJ members and some independents currently belong to the DPJ-led parliamentary group.

The lawmakers said the move does not mean they will leave the DPJ.

The move came as the DPJ moves the process forward to suspend Ozawa’s membership in the party over his indictment stemming from his political funding scandal.

Ozawa loyalists, including the 16, are upping the pressure by threatening to vote against budget-related bills in the Diet, which would represent a heavy blow to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, already suffering from low public support ratings.

The budget-related bills, necessary to implement the budget, could be scrapped if enough DPJ lawmakers abstain from voting or vote against them. The Ozawa camp may thus hold the fate of the bills in its hand.

They submitted the application to the DPJ in the morning. But because the party needs to grant permission before they can leave the parliamentary group, some observers saw it as a bluff.

One of the lawmakers, Koichiro Watanabe, criticized Kan and his administration for failing to carry out the party’s campaign pledges in past polls.

“We can’t remain silent against the Kan administration, which has become far from what it used to be,” Watanabe said at a news conference, adding he and the other 15 intend to stay in the party to achieve the campaign pledges.

If they leave the DPJ they would sacrifice party support in the event of an election.

Watanabe hinted they may vote against the budget-related bills. “We will decide after we scrutinize the content of the bills,” he said.

What Ozawa followers have in mind is the fact that the DPJ-led coalition is five seats short of 318 — two-thirds of the Lower House.

Even if the budget-related bills needed to implement the fiscal 2011 budget are rejected in the opposition-controlled Upper House, the Lower House can override that decision with a two-thirds majority.

Assuming the DPJ can persuade the Social Democratic Party, its former coalition partner, to agree to the bills — which it has yet to accomplish — the party would have 319 votes, just above the 318 mark. But that scenario assumes that the Ozawa loyalists will vote yes on them.

Responding to the action of the 16 lawmakers, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada told reporters that Diet regulations don’t allow members to leave parliamentary groups as they please.

“As long as they belong to the party, it is crystal clear that they can’t leave” the parliamentary group, Okada said. “It is hard to understand their actions.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano also criticized the lawmakers. “Being in one party but in a different parliamentary group is unthinkable in an ordinary sense,” he said. “It is difficult for the public to understand.”

Although it would not be “preferable” for its members to form a separate parliamentary group, said Azuma Koshiishi, a DPJ executive close to Ozawa, the party may need to consider such a possibility.

“There have been precedents of a party member belonging to a different parliamentary group,” Koshiishi told a scheduled news conference. “It may be permitted.”

Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University, said the Ozawa supporters “are just bluffing.”

“What they are doing is threatening to disobey party leaders,” Iwai said, adding that their “desperate attempt” indicates the Ozawa side has run out of effective cards to play against Kan and his party executives.

“They know that the public is harshly against Ozawa,” he said. “Even if they leave the DPJ and form a new party, no one would want to join hands with it.”

When lawmakers create a new parliamentary group, the head of their old group — in this case Okada — would have to first approve their exit and then report it to the speaker of the Lower House in the form of a document. But Okada ruled out such a step.

“If such a document is not submitted, the chamber can’t accept an application to form a new parliamentary group because it would mean they would be registered in two groups,” an official in the Lower House secretariat said.

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