Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who still exerts much influence in Japanese politics at the age of 90, hailed Ichiro Ozawa in an interview toward the end of last year as “having gained dignity, insight and stature during the past year” as the man qualified to lead his Democratic Party of Japan and to replace incumbent Prime Minister Taro Aso of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

In a more recent television appearance, however, Nakasone said he had some reservations about Ozawa’s ability to lead the nation, pointing out that he is lazy, introverted and not in good health.

Of particular concern is Ozawa’s health. During the past decade, Japan lost two prime ministers due to health issues: Keizo Obuchi died of a cerebral infraction in 2000 and Shinzo Abe had to resign because of illness in 2007. The respective successors of these leaders, Yoshiro Mori and Yasuo Fukuda, faced many difficulties as a result. This shows that only a physically fit person should take the helm of government.

In a speech delivered shortly after the turn of the year, Nakasone predicted a “major change” in the Japanese political landscape this year, hinting that Aso’s LDP will suffer a big setback in the Lower House election, which will be held no later than September, and will hand over the reins of government to Ozawa’s DPJ.

It is important to note, however, that this “change” will not be a result of something drastic coming out of the blue, but rather a culmination of the gradual weakening of the LDP in the past roughly 15 years, as characterized by the advent of coalition politics. The LDP is struggling for survival as its popularity plummets and many of its lawmakers are lamenting that they would be unable to win the next election under Aso’s leadership.

Aso was preceded by Fukuda and Abe, each of whom stayed in power only for one year. All three were chosen to head the LDP with an express task of leading the party to victory in the general election. None, however, dared to dissolve the Lower House to call the election. Even though the regime under Aso has lost popularity, the LDP would only be laughed at if it chooses to replace him without going through a general election.

No matter what strategies or tactics the LDP may pursue, it appears all but certain that the next election of the Lower House will mark the end of the rule by the LDP and will usher in a new era in Japanese politics.

Except for a brief period, the LDP has ruled the nation since the party was founded in 1955. This one-party rule has resulted in the loss of its ability to self-reform. The citizens are fed up with a series of gaffes made by the prime minister and the seemingly intoxicated condition of then Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa when he met the press in Rome. It would be impossible to reverse the public’s ill-feelings toward the LDP even if the party chooses another leader to replace Aso.

The crucial question is who will lead the government after a regime change. If the LDP loses in the next general election, the opposition groups centering around the DPJ are most likely to take over, and Ozawa will become prime minister. There are doubts over his qualifications and ability, however.

Ozawa was criticized for being indecisive when the United States proposed that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meet with Ozawa during her visit to Japan last month because the U.S. views him as a leading candidate to be the next prime minister. Ozawa’s lieutenants had to persuade their reluctant leader to agree to meet the top diplomat of the new U.S. administration.

At his meeting with Clinton, however, Ozawa was quoted as telling her, “I will never see you again if I fail to take over the reins of government in the coming general election.” This has led some to wonder if he has sufficient diplomatic common sense. (Newspaper polls taken after the arrest of Ozawa’s chief secretary over political donation irregularities show that a majority think that Ozawa should resign as DPJ chief. However, more people continue to think that Ozawa is better qualified than Aso to serve as prime minister than people who think the opposite, and the number of people who want a DPJ-led government outnumber those who want the LDP to continue to lead.)

A Lower House election is imminent because even if Aso continues to avoid dissolving the Lower House, the tenure of its members will expire in September. But everything seems to be working against the LDP, which today commands 296 of the 480 seats in the Lower House. Party officials are desperate to win at least 200 seats in the next election. If that materializes, the likely scenario would be for the DPJ to win about 230 seats. That would give today’s No. 1 opposition party a plurality in the House, but not a majority. If the DPJ were to win a majority of 241 seats on its own, it would mean more than doubling the 113 seats it now holds. This will not be an easy task.

Should the DPJ win more than 241 seats, Ozawa, as party leader, would become prime minister and probably form a coalition with other groups that are currently in the opposition camp. But an important question is what Ozawa would do if his party becomes the largest group in the House but fails to win a majority.

A number of observers have predicted that in such an event, Ozawa would pick one of his confidants to head the government and he himself would assume the post of deputy prime minister with the power of a kingmaker. By so doing, the observers say, Ozawa will aim to cause a split among the LDP members of the Diet.

They point out in this connection that Ozawa, while bitterly reproaching Aso, speaks very highly of Kaoru Yosano, finance minister and reputedly the prime minister’s right-hand man, presumably with a view to driving a wedge between them.

It is incumbent upon Ozawa to maximize the transparency of what he says and what he intends to do. Absent such transparency, Japanese politics could be headed for a new round of chaos.

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

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