LDP ups ante as Noda weighs Ozawa's fate

by Masami Ito and Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writers

After more than 70 lawmakers from the Democratic Party of Japan rejected or abstained from voting on the contentious bill to hike the sales tax, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and other DPJ executives began internal discussions Wednesday on how to punish the dissenters, mainly kingpin Ichiro Ozawa and his followers.

The DPJ , however, is divided on the severity of the penalties and it is unclear how long it will take the executives to reach a conclusion.

The Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito are meanwhile threatening not to cooperate with deliberations on the tax hike in the Upper House if the DPJ imposes a light punishment on Ozawa and his followers, putting Noda between a rock and a hard place.

Ozawa, who has expressed his intention to stay in the DPJ for the time being, is expected to watch party leaders’ actions closely while continuing his plan to form a new party with his loyalists.

During a meeting of DPJ Upper House lawmakers Wednesday afternoon, Noda expressed his disappointment with the 72 party members who rejected or abstained from voting and beseeched the upper chamber caucus to come through for him.

The Upper House is an even more difficult hurdle because the ruling DPJ-Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) coalition doesn’t have a majority.

“Unfortunately, there were some people from our party who rejected or abstained, and I am very, very disappointed. I believe the secretary general and I need to pull the party together immediately,” Noda said.

He said he will take “strict” measures against the rebels, but others, including Koshiishi — who is close to Ozawa — would prefer a softer response. The party’s rules provide for a wide range of punishment — a warning by the secretary general, removal from party managerial positions, suspension of party membership, and expulsion.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said deciding the punishment is important, but the party won’t wait a long time to hand down judgement.

“Each lawmaker’s political career is at stake and it is not something that (the leaders) can decide easily. . .. But at the same time, it is clearly not something to drag out,” Fujimura said.

Shozo Azuma, one of Ozawa’s close allies, said he and other loyalists are prepared to take whatever punitive measures the DPJ decides. The former vice Cabinet Office minister, however, refused to clarify if or when the Ozawa group will form a new party.

“There comes a time when a politician has to make a major decision and reach a conclusion on his or her future. . . . I think that our starting point is to firmly maintain our principles and the promises we made to the public,” Azuma told reporters.

The LDP and New Komeito have expressed strong dissatisfaction that so many DPJ lawmakers did not support the tax hike bill, to which the three parties made changes together.

“I think it is safe to declare that the credibility of the three-party agreement has collapsed. . . . We can’t participate in deliberations or discussions going forward if the DPJ doesn’t take strict measures,” said LDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima.