Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ozawa ahead as Japan inches into the darkness

If the pundits are correct, Japan on September 14 may have a third Democratic Party of Japan prime minister in a year, assuming former DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa beats incumbent Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the party presidential race. This would also be Japan’s sixth prime minister since 2006 – not a healthy sign for Japan’s parliamentary democracy.

A Kyodo News tally shows Kan and Ozawa running neck-and-neck in the race. Among the party’s 412 Diet members, Ozawa has collected 170 votes, slightly more than Kan’s 160 votes, but the numbers are in flux. The rest reportedly remain undecided. Local party members and supporters have yet to weigh in. The survey reveals that Ozawa has so far failed to garner the full support of the 150 members in his party group or the 60 members of the group headed by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who supports Ozawa.

But in a separate analysis for a weekly magazine (Sunday Mainichi, Sept. 12), political journalist Tetsuya Suzuki predicted Ozawa would win. The election formula allows two points each for the 412 DPJ Diet members, or a total of 826 points. Local party members and supporters voting in the election have 300 points. The total for the two groups is 1,226 points. Suzuki estimated that Ozawa would ultimately pick up most of the undecided votes and win with approximately 670 points to Kan's 550 points.

This is 68-year-old Ozawa's last chance to run and he knows it. Ostensibly, he stepped in to save the party from another train wreck, the first being the loss of control of the Upper House of the Diet in the July election. Supporters cite Ozawa’s strong leadership, compared to Kan’s meandering, and the policy “paralysis” that is likely to ensue under Kan due to the divided Diet. Only Ozawa seems to them capable of running the government under such adverse circumstances. But cynics would say that Ozawa's appetite for power has been whetted by the promise of constitutional immunity it brings from prosecutors hungry to bring him down over political contributions allegations. An Ozawa win would drive many in the DPJ to bolt the party. This scenario would be likely if Ozawa, like Kan in his cabinet and party selections, purged political enemies and their supporters, alienating a significant portion of the DPJ.

The party is already split going into the election campaign that started September 1. The race is not so much a test of Kan’s premiership – he has only been in office a few months. The responsibility for losing the Upper House election must be shared with his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned over a politics and money scandal, as did Ozawa in tandem, and for botching relocating the Futenma US Marine base in Okinawa.

Fearing a party rupture, Hatoyama, who supports Ozawa out of a sense of loyalty, arranged a meeting between Ozawa and Kan on August 31. The purpose was to persuade Ozawa to withdraw from the race in return for a plum post in the new government and other conditions. The meeting ended in rupture after 30 minutes, apparently over the demand from Ozawa that Kan remove from his lineup certain enemies of Ozawa like Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku, Secretary General Edano, and Seiji Maehara.

Such a backroom deal would have been seen by the public as reminiscent of the worst of Liberal Democratic Party politics of yore, when Ozawa was a main participant. Indeed, the public has no love for Ozawa and polls show an overwhelming 65 to 80% against having him as the next prime minister. They would rather stick to Kan. The rupture also ended for good the troika formula of party management – Ozawa, Kan, and Hatoyama – that has operated for years – a destabilizing factor that seems to portend the party’s possible split in the near future.

In his statement to the press after the meeting, Kan spoke of the need to keep the party “open” and “clean,” a not too veiled reference to Ozawa’s backroom politics and money scandals. He even brought up the Lockheed Scandal of the 1970s that brought chaos to Japanese politics. At the time Ozawa worked for Kakuei Tanaka, the LDP political boss who rose to become one of Japan’s most powerful premiers until forced to resign over the scandal and then arrested and convicted.

Though Ozawa claims he is the only candidate with enough strong leadership to overcome the divided Diet roadblock to passage of legislation, the Japanese electorate disagrees. Every opinion poll shows public support returning for the Kan administration since Ozawa announced his candidacy. The latest Asahi poll, for example, shows 49% approval rate for the Kan Cabinet, up 12 points in a month.

Kan could still confound the pundits. His strategy in campaigning and debating Ozawa in TV appearances is to woo the block of middle-of-the-roaders in the party. Many of the DPJ first-termers seem to be fence sitters amenable to persuasion. The press, though it traditionally does not endorse candidates, has long been unfriendly to Ozawa as a relic of the LDP’s power-politics past and is now much more critical of Ozawa’s positions in the campaign.

If Ozawa wins, however, it is rumored that he will pursue a coalition with the New Komeito, the LDP’s former partner. Such a strategy aims to cobble together enough Lower House votes to override by a two-thirds majority vote any bill rejected by the Upper House. But this plan assumes that the DPJ will hold together after the election. There is a possibility that the DPJLDP to form a new ruling party coalition, ousting the rump DPJ.

Far-fetched? Well, nothing is impossible in Japanese politics in which the traditional saying, one inch ahead is darkness, has often proved to be the rule rather than the exception.

Dr William Brooks
APP Fellow

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