Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hatoyama fiddles as Ozawa scandal burns

Allegations of dirty money smearing postwar Japan's biggest political heavyweight have been dominating the national agenda this week.

The only relief for Ichiro Ozawa was the reappearance of the US base relocation issue, which has been wrestling Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's decision-making skills, when voters in Nago City elected a mayor opposed to moving the Marine base to the outskirts of his city.

Japanese voters are being treated to televised scraps in the Diet reminiscent of when the Liberal Democratic Party was in power. Then, LDP prime ministers were regularly pummeled by such Democratic Party of Japan leaders as Hatoyama, but this time, the boot is on the other foot. During January 21st’s Diet session, LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki and other opposition leaders formed a tag team that had Hatoyama on the ropes for almost four hours about his and Ozawa’s political fund improprieties.

This week another group, with Upper House LDP lawmaker Yoichi Masuzoe in the lead, has relentlessly pursued the prime minister, tying up the Budget Committee from making progress on the second supplementary budget to stimulate the economy.

The LDP has been having a field day with the Ozawa scandal. Last Thursday, a group of lawmakers took a half-day bus tour to the various properties that Ozawa owns in Tokyo, with a cavalcade of press people in tow. Then, early this week, another group of LDP legislators braved the bitter cold and snow to visit the remote mountainous area of Iwate Prefecture, Ozawa’s home turf, to poke holes in a monsterous dam scheme. The project allegedly was rigged in part by Ozawa’s local office secretary, who is now in jail for his role in the scandal. Some local companies with contracts have implied Ozawa’s direct involvement, as well.

These were obvious political stunts by the LDP, but they could add to the level of public distrust and disappointment with the DPJ for being just as susceptible to such shenanigans as were the LDP power brokers of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, the tabloid weeklies, always a bellwether for popular sentiment, have been mercilessly attacking Hatoyama and Ozawa, revealing juicy details about the money scandals. The magazines have assailed the power relationship between Ozawa, the DPJ Secretary General, who is seen as manipulating the Hatoyama government behind-the-scenes, and the prime minister, depicted as weak and indecisive. One weekly, the Shukan Asahi is already predicting that the DPJ will go down to a “crushing defeat” in the July Upper House election.

A prominent political blog, Masaharu Miyazaki`s International News Quick Read (Japanese only), even has a political scenario that envisions Hatoyama, hounded by scandal and low popularity, stepping down this spring to let Naoto Kan, now finance minister, take the helm. While such gloom and doom may be premature, there is cause for worry since such cynicism about incumbent administrations and predictions of their imminent demise cannot help but be self-fulfilling.

The Nago City mayoral election in Okinawa in which the winner has pledged to reject the Henoko relocation plan has made Hatoyama’s decision in May even more difficult. Still, since the incumbent mayor only lost by about 2,000 votes in a low-turnout election, the result should not be taken as a mandate to scrap the existing plan, as the coalition partner Social Democratic Party is urging.

Hatoyama has refused to rule out Henoko. Thus in May it is still possible that he will come down in favor of it, with conditions. Okinawans would not be happy, given the track record of flip-flops on the issue, and the SDP could even bolt the coalition. But Hatoyama could still earn respect for having finally made a clear-cut decision. He could persuasively argue that a Henoko decision came as the last resort after all other options, though relentlessly pursued, had failed.

Ozawa is a harder case. Following his voluntary questioning by prosecutors, his fate is in the hands of the people, and he might even decide to step down if the next round of polls shows a strong desire for such a course of action. But if he decides to stay on to run the July Upper House election, Hatoyama may be helpless to stop him.

There is no one in the DPJ with the wherewithal to hold him back.

Dr William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow

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