Koshiishi scrambles to avoid DPJ split

Ozawa mum on departure following meeting with secretary general

by Masami Ito and Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writers

Hoping to head off a possible breakaway from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi met Thursday with Ichiro Ozawa, appealing to the party kingpin to stand behind Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and shore up unity.

Ozawa had threatened to leave the DPJ and form a new party — taking with him dozens of his followers — unless Noda gave in to his ultimatum to scrap the contentious bill to raise the sales tax.

On Tuesday, Ozawa and 71 other DPJ lawmakers in the Lower House opposed or abstained from voting on the bill, which was passed. Party leaders have yet to decide what punishment to mete out for the disloyalty.

Talking to his backers prior to Thursday’s meeting with Koshiishi, Ozawa stressed his course of action would depend on the outcome of discussions with the secretary general.

“I will talk to the secretary general and try to find the best way (to resolve the situation), but if things do not go well, I will have to make a grave decision,” Ozawa reportedly told his allies.

Later in the day, Ozawa told reporters, “If the Upper House forcibly passes the tax bill again, we would try to deliver the promises we made to the public, working beyond the DPJ’s framework.” He added that this was what he conveyed to Koshiishi.

The former DPJ president and other tax-hike opponents have repeatedly claimed to be representing the will of the people. But opinion polls suggest the public has little faith in Ozawa’s plans for a new party amid the overall political turmoil, despite his opposition to the tax hike.

Meeting behind closed doors twice Thursday, Ozawa once again urged the DPJ leadership to give up on the tax hike.

Meanwhile, Koshiishi, a close ally of Ozawa, has sought to keep the DPJ together through leniency toward dissenters rather than expulsion, as some members are calling for.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said he would follow closely any developments regarding punishment of the dissidents.

“As a member of the government, I would like to pay my respects to the efforts made by Secretary General Koshiishi. There are various discussions being held within the party,” Fujimura told reporters.

He refused to speculate on the fallout from the possible departure of Ozawa and his followers. “Now is not the time to assume that the party will be divided,” Fujimura said.

About 40 Ozawa loyalists are thought to have submitted letters of resignation to their boss. Yet others are less willing to follow their leader out of the DPJ. Many are first-termers with little support in their districts, and thus dependent on the resources, financial and otherwise, of a large organization like the DPJ.

Some lawmakers have voiced interest in temporarily leaving parliamentary groups led by the DPJ in the Lower House, but not the party itself.