National / Politics

Ichiro Ozawa may be on verge of comeback as Japan's DPP and Liberal parties form joint Diet group

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

One of Japan’s most influential and divisive political figures in recent decades may be staging another comeback.

On Thursday, Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa and Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, met at the Diet, where they agreed to form a joint parliamentary group for their opposition parties in the Diet.

Later in the day, DPP Secretary-General Hirofumi Hirano said at a news conference that the party will soon start policy coordination talks with Ozawa’s party to “form a larger group.” When asked by reporters, Hirano didn’t rule out a merger.

The DPP-Liberal Party bloc is now likely to become the largest opposition group in the Upper House, with 27 members during the ordinary Diet session starting Jan. 28, followed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan with 25.

In the meantime, media outlets have reported that Ozawa might be tapped to be secretary-general of the new party, should it emerge.

Ozawa, who served as the Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary-general in the early 1990s, bolted from the party in 1993 with a group of lawmakers and helped kick the LDP out of the power for the first time since it was established in 1955.

Ozawa, known as a skilled election strategist, also headed Shinshinto in the late 1990s, when it was the largest opposition party. He also was a key member of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2000s.

Ozawa headed the DPJ’s election campaigns as deputy party head and ousted the LDP from power again in the 2009 Lower House election, which drastically changed Japan’s political landscape for a second time.

“I know quite well about the ability, insight and personality of Mr. Ozawa. I told (the DPP members) that I want to borrow his insight” to form a larger group of opposition lawmakers, Hirano said.

At the same time, he emphasized that the two leaders only agreed to “further strengthen cooperation” during Thursday’s meeting.

Forming a kaiha (parliamentary group) does not involve merging the parties’ organizations and platforms. But at the Diet, the kaiha is considered the basic unit for forming a group, and question time is distributed to each one according to, in principle, the number of members it has.

DPP, the second-largest opposition party, seems to have good reason to tap Ozawa’s strong public recognition ahead of the Upper House election this summer.

The approval rate of the DPP has been hovering around the 1 percent level in NHK polls for months, and political observers say the party is likely to suffer a crushing defeat in the election without major reforms.

Ozawa, however, has been known for having a dictatorial style of leadership and poor communication with his followers, and all the parties he belonged to were split into pro-Ozawa and anti-Ozawa sides, including the DPJ.

Most of them eventually broke up, and Ozawa’s Liberal Party has only six Diet members — Ozawa, another in the Lower House and four members in the Upper House. Political observers have said his career as an influential leader is already effectively over.

On Wednesday, Tamaki denied he discussed any personnel matters during a meeting with Ozawa the previous day, despite media reports saying the DPP was considering tapping Ozawa as the No. 2 man for a new party.

In the meantime, some DPP members have opposed merger talks with the Liberal Party, given Ozawa’s bad management record.

The Liberal Party is anti-nuclear, an apparent obstacle for the DPP, which takes a more moderate stance on nuclear power.

“Merging with a certain opposition force without reconciliation of policy measures and party platforms is impossible,” wrote DPP Lower House member Takeshi Shina on Twitter on Tuesday, expressing opposition to the reported merger talks with the Liberal Party.

Staff writer Sakura Murakami contributed to this report.