/ |

Ozawa’s troops are restless

Political insiders have begun suspecting that Ichiro Ozawa may be losing his grip on the Democratic Party of Japan after a head-on collision between the DPJ and the governing coalition was averted during 11th-hour mediation by the Lower House speaker and the Upper House president.

The crux of the mediation matter was the additional provisional tax imposed on gasoline under a law due to expire at the end of March. Intent on keeping the high tax rate to build roads, the coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito had drafted a bill that would have maintained the additional tax until the end of May, hoping that by that time the Diet would have passed the fiscal 2008 tax-code bill extending the additional tax another 10 years.

As the opposition group, led by Ozawa’s DPJ, was determined to lower the gasoline tax, the two sides appeared headed for a collision course. But the joint mediation by Speaker Yohei Kono and President Satsuki Eda was accepted by both the governing coalition and the opposition camp, and eliminated the possibility of Ozawa forcing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to call general elections.

The end of March seemed like the perfect time for Ozawa to drive Fukuda into a tight corner because it would coincide with the expiration of the high gasoline tax as well as the government’s self-imposed deadline for clearing up problems related to hard-to-identify pension premium payment records.

Apparently, however, Ozawa was not sure of what lay ahead. It was not at all certain that general elections would result in the governing coalition losing its majority in the Lower House. Nor could he make another move toward forming a “grand coalition” between his DPJ and the LDP, a scheme condemned by his own lieutenants last year. Moreover, he cannot afford any internal feuding within his own party, which together with other opposition parties holds the majority in the Upper House.

Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama and other DPJ leaders are showing signs of having become fed up with the wishy-washy attitude of their boss, complaining that he does not consult them on important strategic matters.

Hatoyama openly criticized Ozawa for leaving a Lower House plenary session without casting a negative vote on a bill to have the Maritime Self-Defense Force resume supplying fuel to U.S. and other naval vessels engaged in antiterrorist operations in the Indian Ocean. Ozawa instead rushed to Osaka to support the DPJ candidate in the gubernatorial election there. Hatoyama blamed Ozawa’s action for that candidate’s defeat.

Sensing that Hatoyama’s patience was running out, Ozawa sent him a birthday cake on Feb. 11, an unusual move by a man known for not bothering to return phone calls from his top aides.

Ozawa knows fully well that he cannot keep his party unified solely on the strength of its victory in the Upper House election last year. That’s why he takes pains to keep Hatoyama and ex-DPJ leader Naoto Kan on his side by pretending that even in the event of his party’s winning a majority in the Lower House, he would not become prime minister.

Meanwhile, both Hatoyama and Kan, who have had bitter experiences in stepping down from top party positions due to personal mistakes or circumstances within the party, are supporting Ozawa for now in the hopes of inheriting his post in an amicable manner.

Everybody knows, however, that if Ozawa loses his charisma and the party rank and file start clamoring for a change in leadership, the DPJ will be thrown into a chaos. Now that the prospect of general elections in April appears slimmer, some junior DPJ lawmakers feel that they’ve had enough of Ozawa’s behavior. Some have even asked “how long is he going to deceive us?”

If the elections are not to take place in April, the next likely time would be either July or September, following the summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations to be held in Japan. With that in mind, Hatoyama and Kan said they would support Ozawa’s re-election when his current term expires in September.

Although Ozawa himself appears eager to be re-elected, some DPJ lawmakers complain of his highhanded manner in suppressing opponents and his refusal to listen to younger lawmakers.

Aside from the confrontation between the governing coalition and the opposition group, the successive formation of informal groups that cross party lines could lead to a drastic realignment of the political parties. For example, more than 100 Diet members from the LDP, Komeito, the DPJ and Kokumin Shinto joined a group formed by a former prefectural governor aimed at discussing how to give citizens a broader choice for a better lifestyle.

Ozawa has long been known for demanding loyalty from colleagues and for abhorring subordinates who oppose him. Yet he no longer seems capable of preventing DPJ lawmakers from joining such cross-party groups. This does not mean, however, that those DPJ lawmakers who distance themselves from Ozawa have made up their minds to desert the party. When two high-ranking members of the DPJ joined a parliamentary mission to South Korea headed by former LDP secretary general Koichi Kato, some thought this would accelerate realignment of the political party lineup. But neither Kato nor the two DPJ members have any intention of abandoning their respective party affiliations.

With the general elections unlikely to take place this spring as had once been expected, DPJ members’ attention is now focused on the election of their leader in September.

The first round of the battle this year between the LDP and the DPJ over the gasoline tax issue ended in a draw. The next round is not likely in the foreseeable future. Under these circumstances, it is not only DPJ lawmakers who may be disgusted with intraparty strife.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics.