Ozawa, allies to vote against tax hike bill

Noda stands firm as DPJ don threatens to exit, form new party

by Masami Ito and Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writers

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his ruling Democratic Party of Japan said Thursday they have abandoned attempts to pass the tax hike bill Friday, but an internal rift looms as Ichiro Ozawa officially declared his intention to vote against the legislation.

Also on Thursday, the scheduled end of the current Diet session, the DPJ extended it by 79 days through Sept. 8 to clear the stack of bills still under deliberation in the divided legislature. The DPJ now plans to put the tax bill to a vote Tuesday.

But with about 50 of Ozawa loyalists expected to follow his lead on the contentious tax bill and rumors circulating they may even be preparing to bolt from the DPJ and form a new party, the outlook for Noda’s administration appears grim.

Ozawa, who heads the DPJ’s largest faction, met with Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi on Thursday morning to announce his intention to vote against the bill, which would double the 5 percent consumption tax by October 2015.

The party kingpin views Noda’s proposal to hike the sales levy as a complete betrayal of the campaign promises that saw the DPJ elected to office in 2009. “We cannot sacrifice our principles,” Ozawa told reporters after the meeting.

The former DPJ president also hinted at the possibility of forming a new party.

“I believe there are a few options on how we can continue to implement policies that help people’s livelihoods,” Ozawa said. “Nothing is settled yet about quitting the party or forming a new one, but I would like to decide the best way with my colleagues after the vote” on the sales tax.

Pundits said that if Ozawa manages to draw enough defectors from the DPJ, Noda and his adminstration may even be forced to call it a day.

Anger among Ozawa’s loyalists intensified when the DPJ recently caved in to the demands buy the two main opposition groups, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, to shelve some of its key welfare pledges.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said DPJ executives may have underestimated the determination of Ozawa’s group. “They possibly thought there wouldn’t be many (DPJ members) prepared to vote against the tax-related bills or leave the party” over the issue, Nakano said.

Noda will still be able to pass the sales levy bill and related legislation during the extended Diet session with the support of the LDP and New Komeito, but if 54 or more Ozawa loyalists vote against it in the Lower House, the ruling party could fall apart and lose its majority in the 480-seat chamber.

Various media reports estimate Ozawa has so far succeeded in mustering about 50 followers to vote against the bill. Key supporters include former farm minister Masahiko Yamada and Shozo Azuma, a former vice minister at the Cabinet Office. But it remains unclear how may would actually bolt from the DPJ if push comes to shove.

“I will follow my heart and reject” the tax hike legislation, Azuma said. “There is no turning back now. . . . I think the DPJ sold itself out and lost its direction.”

If the ruling party were to break apart, a no-confidence motion against the prime minister could even be passed if opposition parties looked to capitalize on the chaos and joined DPJ defectors.

“Under the circumstances, Noda’s administration will have to rely on the LDP” to enact legislation, said Sophia University’s Nakano.

But the opposition parties’ patience is wearing thin as Noda struggles to exert any leadership, with his failure to meet Thursday’s deadline for voting on the tax hike bill in the Lower House seen as the latest example.

“The ruling coalition and the government bear a heavy responsibility for its inertia, and the prime minister should apologize to the public,” LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara said.

The LDP is trying to force Noda to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election as soon as possible, a scenario both the prime minister and Ozawa are desperate to avoid, given that the DPJ’s fatally low support rate virtually guarantees it would be wiped out in any snap poll.

A recent survey by Jiji Press showed the support rate for the ruling party dropped from 9.5 percent in April to 8.1 percent in this month, while the LDP’s rose to 13.1 percent over the same period.

The ruling party’s move to extend the Diet session is widely seen as an attempt to buy more time. It also sends “a signal to Ozawa’s group and DPJ moderates that (Noda) has no intention to call a snap election” for the time being, said Nakano of Sophia University.

The prime minister may also be looking for time to make progress on other policy goals and gain an edge in September’s DPJ presidential election, Nakano added.