Political showdown, and possibly poll, loom


Staff Writer

Now that Ichiro Ozawa has been acquitted of funding irregularity charges, experts said one thing is certain at this stage: he will try to regain power within his Democratic Party of Japan and send Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda packing.

In the past few years, Ozawa has been shunted aside by Noda, who also serves as ruling DPJ’s president, and the party’s executives. When allegations surfaced over a political funds misdeeds that appeared to implicate Ozawa and some key former aides, they seized on the chance to suspend the party membership of the “shadow shogun.”

Thursday’s court ruling, however, will allow Ozawa to regroup and consolidate the estimated 100 loyal followers in the intraparty faction he heads to force Noda into a corner ahead of the DPJ’s presidential election in September.

Noda from now on is facing a two-pronged attack: A full-on assault from opposition parties in the Diet, and the threat of an internal coup from within his own party.

The grim situation the prime minister finds himself in may even force his hand and push him to strike a deal with the devil and ask the Liberal Democratic Party to help pass legislation in the deadlocked Diet to hike the sales tax, the key plank in his reform package, in exchange for dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election, analysts said.

“This marks the beginning of psychological warfare between Noda, LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki and Ozawa,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University. “Noda is going to try to play the dissolution card to keep Ozawa and his supporters in check, while he searches for ways to cooperate with Tanigaki.”

The not guilty verdict handed down Thursday is also expected to trigger strong calls for DPJ executives to reinstate Ozawa’s party membership, which has been suspended since his official indictment in January 2011. DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi, one of Ozawa’s closest allies, has previously suggested the suspension might be lifted if Ozawa were to be found innocent.

Once that hurdle is cleared, analysts expect the DPJ power broker to launch a full-fledged campaign to put Noda to the sword, possibly by standing in September’s presidential election to take him on head to head.

“Ozawa’s acquittal means he is going to go straight for Noda’s head,” Kawakami at Meiji Gakuin suggested. News of Ozawa’s acquittal spread like wildfire among his followers. But while Ozawa leads the largest intraparty group in the DPJ, many of supporters are political newcomers with weak electoral bases, and pundits predict that many will be unseated in the next general election.

Ozawa is thus desperately trying to stop Noda from calling a snap poll, at least for the time being.

“It will be the end for Ozawa if Noda dissolves the Lower House anytime soon because his group would most likely be decimated,” said Masaki Taniguchi, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.

In the meantime, Noda is only focusing on one issue — passing a bill to double the consumption tax to 10 percent by 2015 to cover soaring social security fees. The prime minister is desperate to pass the legislation during the current Diet session, which ends June 21, but it seems increasingly likely that Noda will have to extend the session for the bill to stand any chance of clearing both the Lower and opposition-controlled Upper houses.

Ozawa is fiercely opposed to Noda’s tax hike drive, and has indicated that he may even encourage his supporters to vote it down in the Lower House. But if he were to take such a radical step, in direct opposition to the party line, both he and his followers would risk being booted from the DPJ.

“I don’t think he has reached a point yet where he is considering leaving the DPJ. I think he is going to do his best to use his influence within the party to call Noda’s bluff,” Taniguchi said.

As for the opposition camp, the LDP is demanding that Noda dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election before the tax hike bill clears both chambers in the Diet. Though the largest opposition party in principle favors raising the sales tax, destroying Noda’s prime ministership and terminating his administration has been its priority under Tanigaki’s leadership.

But Noda is not the only one facing a party leadership election in September. Tanigaki will also have to run in the LDP’s presidential race around the same time, and realizes full well that if he is unable to force Noda to call a snap poll by then, his time at the helm will also be doomed.

Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami said passing the sales levy bill could be in the best interests of both Noda and Tanigaki, before their respective parties end their leadership.

“If there is no Lower House election before September, both Noda and Tanigaki would likely be wiped out, and both men could be forced to step down due to pressure within their parties,” Kawakami said. “That is why the DPJ and the LDP may reach an agreement on the tax hike bill and jointly decide the timing of a snap election, which would also help Noda get rid of Ozawa once and for all.”

Some experts think Ozawa may turn to popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) for political assistance.

But most of Osaka Ishin no Kai members are not professional politicians and thus may be of no use to Ozawa, despite Hashimoto’s popularity, according to Kawakami.

Hashimoto recently declared war on the DPJ over Noda’s decision to approve the restart of two idled reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, which neighbors Osaka. The mayor has also praised Ozawa for voicing his opposition to Noda’s proposed tax hike, leaving the possibility of the two cooperating open.

“I think Ozawa is clinging to the hope that as long as a general election is pushed back as far as possible, he may still be able to make a comeback. It may all turn out to be an empty dream, but there is still that possibility,” Kawakami said.

But Gerald Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, recently expressed major concerns over the recent and spectacular explosion of the so-called Hashimoto phenomenon on the national political scene.

Curtis warned that Japan may have to prepare itself for the emergence of a flood of “Hashimoto children” in the next Lower House election, which must be held by autumn 2013.

” ‘Children’ are taking over Japanese politics with very little ‘adult supervision.’ This is not a healthy situation and it is very hard for me to predict that anything good will come out of this chaos,” Curtis cautioned.