Ichiro Ozawa and the battle for Japan’s political soul

In an article I wrote for an online news website around three months ago, I said that the biggest challenge that would confront the then newly-installed Prime Minister Naoto Kan would be a potential comeback by Ichiro Ozawa, the erstwhile shadow shogun whom Kan at that time humiliated and stripped of influence within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). At that time, I predicted that Ozawa would field one of his puppets to challenge Kan in the DPJ presidential elections this Sept. 14. I was wrong. Ozawa would pull a comeback, alright; but he is not appointing a puppet to run in the elections. He himself would challenge the Prime Minister.

The king-maker has decided to be the king himself.

This is so far biggest political surprise of this particularly turbulent year. Everybody knew that Ozawa would one day seek the position, but it was almost a consensus that he would not do so just yet simply because his popularity is at its lowest point right now. Opinion polls point out that around 63 to 78 percent of the public are opposed to Ozawa becoming Japan’s leader. Within the DPJ, the percentage is even higher: 80 percent of the 300,000 party members favor Kan over Ozawa. A Prime Minister Ozawa, therefore, would be a prime minister devoid of the people’s mandate.

So why did Ozawa, arguably the most savvy Japanese politician in recent history, decide to throw his hat to the ring at the least auspicious time? This is something that only Ozawa and perhaps people close to him could tell. But we can get a clue by understanding the context in which Ozawa, Kan and others are operating: an intriguing internal power struggle for control of the DPJ which in turn is an integral part of the on-going shadow battle for Japan’s political soul, something that should draw the interest not only of Japan observers but also all students of history and politics everywhere.

Shadow showdown.

Filipinos like to point out that behind their country’s democratic façade is an arena where the major players are the influential dynasties, big business interests and other elite institutions that maneuver to get the bigger slice of the nation’s pie. Similarly, in Thailand, the Royalists and the Bangkok elite, backed up by the military, are at the nation’s helm. In these two settings, as it is in many other countries, the people are marginalized and democracy is not promoted beyond the usual lip service. The same has always been true in Japan, where the ruling establishment and not the people dominates the government.

In Japan, the ruling establishment is an alliance composed of traditional politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); the all-powerful bureaucracy; and the keiretsu, or big business interests. In this alliance, the politicians (denoted by the metonym Nagata-cho after the district in Tokyo where the Diet and the Kantei, the Prime Minister’s official residence, are located) enjoy the perks of power but the bureaucrats (referred to as Kasumigaseki after the district in Tokyo where ministerial offices are located) are the ones calling the shots.

The politicians employ pork-barrel politics to entrench themselves in their districts, bringing about massive public spending on infrastructure that bring benefits not just to the rural folk but also to the business establishments and the construction companies that in turn contribute highly to many a politician’s campaign chest. On the other hand, bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, upon retirement from government, are given lucrative positions as advisers in big companies, making them arguably beholden to corporate instead of national interests. This practice is called amakudari, which literally means ‘to come down from heaven.’ While this corrupt arrangement has made Japan the economic giant that it is today, after the bubble burst in the 1990s this set-up has become unresponsive to the new challenges facing the country, which is now entering its third consecutive ‘lost decade’.

The reformist DPJ was formed on the principles of changing this corrupt arrangement. One of its core principles is that Japan should be a real parliamentary democracy where the Prime Minister and his Cabinet as chosen by the representatives of the people, and not the unelected bureaucrats, call the shots.

When the party won control of the Upper House of the Diet in 2007, it began a serious battle to wrest power from the ruling establishment. While it has succeeded in ending the fifty-year rule of the deeply-entrenched LDP in a landslide election victory last year, it has not yet taken control of the country’s political soul; the bureaucrats are responding with an extremely impressive resistance. It is unfortunate that the mainstream media and the general public are missing this on-going battle for this could cause a tectonic shift in the country’s political alignment not seen since the Meiji restoration.

This battle, for instance, has already claimed as one of its first casualties the administration of the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. One of Hatoyama’s campaign promises was to relocate the US military base in Futenma out of Okinawa. This was opposed by Washington, which had already concluded an agreement with the LDP to move the base within Okinawa. Confident that he can strike a deal with President Barack Obama if he meets him personally in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington earlier last April, Hatoyama set a deadline for the resolution of the issue. But alas, Japanese bureaucrats connived with American mandarins to deny Hatoyama a meeting with Obama. He was even humiliated by the White House by sending neither the Vice President nor the Secretary of State but the Secretary of Energy, third to the last in the US Order of Precedence, to greet him. At the end of the day, Hatoyama could not come up with a detailed relocation plan, partly because he could not get help from the bureaucrats and mostly since no other prefecture was willing to host the base, and he failed to meet his deadline. Having totally depleted his political capital, he resigned.

In lieu of the coming elections for the Upper House in July, Ozawa, who was facing a money scandal that is for all intents and purposes a joke but a convenient one for the bureaucrats who partly control the Public Prosecutor’s Office, also resigned so the party could regain its lost political capital.

DPJ spectrum.

The fall of Hatoyama also meant the fall of Ozawa, who had been the shadow shogun that wielded power behind the scenes. Hatoyama was replaced by Naoto Kan, who surrounded himself with anti-Ozawa party bigwigs, most notably Yoshito Sengoku and Yoshihiko Noda, whom he appointed secretary-general and finance minister, respectively. Upon assuming office, Kan immediately purged the Cabinet and the party leadership of all Ozawa loyalists and publicly told the kingpin to “stay quiet for a while.” Given Ozawa’s unpopularity, these gestures earned Kan and his cabinet a significant rise in approval ratings.

To see how painfully humiliating these must have been to Ozawa, we must understand that Ozawa is a proud man. And he has every reason to be so. He came to the presidency of the DPJ in 2006 when the party was still licking its wounds from a major defeat by the Junichiro Koizumi-led LDP, yet the very next year the DPJ stunned the nation when it grabbed control of the less-powerful Upper House of the Diet for the first time. In 2008, Ozawa secretly tried to form a grand coalition with the LDP, then led by Yasuo Fukuda, to resolve the parliamentary gridlock that the DPJ’s victory had created; but when this was made public the DPJ was unanimous in opposing it and in condemning Ozawa for even thinking about it. Ozawa threatened to resign, but the Democrats knew that only Ozawa could lead the party to power so they begged for him to stay. In 2009, when it was certain that Ozawa would lead the DPJ to power and become prime minister, the money scandal that dogs him to this day first came out and he was forced to resign. Just the same, he appointed his lieutenant Hatoyama to be his puppet and led the party to a landslide victory in the general elections that followed. For Ozawa, therefore, Kan and his group’s attempt to have him sidelined despite the fact that the party owes its present position to him smacks of grave ingratitude.

But more than that, it was Kan’s policies that really angered Ozawa. Dropping the populist promises that the DPJ made in last year’s elections like hot potato, Kan instead proposed to raise taxes and limit government spending on social security. These bold proposals led to a significant drop in Kan’s approval ratings that resulted to the LDP’s victory in the Upper House elections last July, the very same thing that Ozawa wanted to avoid by resigning.

While Kan honestly believes that his unpopular policies, which he calls theThird Way, are the bitter pill that would help cure Japan’s economic ills, particularly its ballooning foreign debt; Ozawa saw it as a sell-out to the bureaucrats who favor the same policies. For Ozawa, these policies were crafted by bureaucrats who are out of touch with the real needs of the general public. For him, addressing the needs of the people whose consumption would provide economic velocity must be prioritized over the payment of Japan’s debt. For Kan, on the other hand, pursuing Ozawa’s populism at a time when the country’s finances are strained is no different from the LDP’s irresponsible pork barrel politics.

And these differences in economic policies are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath is an actual battle for control of the party between two warring factions: the Ozawa group and the anti-Ozawa group.

The Ozawa group believes that the party must stick to its core principle of dismantling the establishment, which can only be realized by entrenching the party’s grip on power. To this end, the party should stick to its populist campaign promises at all cost. Structurally, this group adheres to Ozawa’s backroom politics that emphasizes patron-client relationship and behind-the-scene deals. Presumably, this group is composed of the so-called Ozawa Children, around 150 neophyte Diet members whom Ozawa recruited to successfully run in last year’s general elections, and the former members of the various socialist parties that had earlier merged with the DPJ. We can say that this group is the fundamentalist faction of the DPJ.

On the other hand, the anti-Ozawa group is more flexible in terms of adhering to the party’s goal of wrestling power from the bureaucrats. It sees the DPJ populist platform as nothing more than a tool that the party used to gain power; therefore, when the country’s interest so requires, it should be abandoned. Structurally, this group is grassroots-oriented, transparent and media-savvy. It is composed of Kan, Sengoku, Noda and former party presidents Seiji Maehara and Katsuya Okada and their respective factions. We can say that this group is the pragmatist, moderate faction of the DPJ.

Desperate Ozawa.

Most people don’t appreciate the fact that the Kan-Ozawa showdown is not just a normal power struggle between two individual politicians but a real battle for the party’s direction simply because they assume that Ozawa, notorious for the skillful way with which he navigates the political backrooms, is interested only in wielding power and not in formulating policies that would improve the country and the people. This is a very unfair impression. More than anyone else, it is Ozawa who has been consistent with his ideals and principles.

The platform he crafted for the DPJ last year and the policies he has been espousing are still the same things he had advocated twenty years ago when he first published his book Blueprint For New Japan. Indeed, a couple of decades ago Ozawa had been a rising star in the LDP, becoming the youngest secretary-general of that powerful party. As the LDP’s number two, party big-wigs resented having had to appeal to him because he was twenty-years their junior, yet they had grudging respect for his skills. Back then, the only thing Ozawa had to do to become prime minister was to remain alive; yet he stunned the nation by bolting the then deeply-entrenched party. If Ozawa was corrupt or interested only in the perks of power, he would have remained in the LDP. But Ozawa’s driving ambition is to really dismantle the ruling establishment in order to build a new Japan and that required him to betray the LDP.

For Ozawa, the realization of his political principles is bigger than anyone and anything else, including the welfare of his own party. This I believe is the driving force behind Ozawa’s desperate attempt to wield control of the DPJ from the anti-Ozawa forces.

I say desperate because Ozawa knows that, firstly, he is facing an uphill battle. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of the Democrats in the Diet whose votes would practically decide who gets to be party chief and therefore prime minister belong to the various pro-Ozawa factions, the rising tide of public opinion against their master could at the very least make them think twice about supporting Ozawa. Many of them would have to weigh loyalty to the man who brought their party to power against their own political careers or, indeed, the welfare of their party itself.

Secondly, Ozawa’s entry into the race is putting the party at great risk. This is because, as stated above, if Ozawa wins the election his government would be devoid of mandate and would therefore have very little or no political capital. To makes matters worse, most of the party bigwigs are anti-Ozawa, which means that he would have to rely on not-so-experienced supporters to fill posts in his cabinet. This would complicate the already nasty fact that an Ozawa government would come to power amidst a resurgent opposition that collectively enjoys a majority in the Upper House. Ozawa had used the DPJ’s Upper House majority from 2007 to 2009 to force the LDP to dissolve parliament and call for general elections. This time around, Ozawa might get a dose of his own medicine.

Ozawa’s supporters say that his backroom negotiations skills make him the perfect man to gain the cooperation of smaller opposition parties and even the LDP. But I doubt he would be as successful this time, simply because his unpopularity would deter any political party from dealing with his government.

In the final analysis, therefore, the prospect of a Prime Minister Ozawa is a paradox.

It’s a paradox because by insisting on “saving” his party and zealously pursuing the dismantlement of the ruling establishment, Ozawa might just end up destroying his party and restoring the ruling establishment.

Should he be forced to call dissolve parliament at the middle of his term, which many analysts believe is certain, the DPJ would surely lose control of the government and the forces of the ruling establishment would win this shadow battle.

More than that, it’s paradox because the fundamental premise of Ozawa’s core principles is that, since Japan is a democracy, the people’s representatives and not the unelected bureaucrats and other elite should take the nation’s helm. Yet by becoming a prime minister devoid of the people’s mandate, he would be no different from those he has been spending all his life and energies to oppose.

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11 thoughts on “Ichiro Ozawa and the battle for Japan’s political soul”

  1. Quite insightful. My question is: Is Ozawa really gunning for PM to become PM, or to set the stage for something else? As you’ve analyzed, Ozawa never really was up-front with his intentions except when it was tactically advantageous.

  2. Hello Aids. Thank you for your comment.

    Indeed, that is a very important angle I missed.

    It is true that Ozawa never wanted to run. He negotiated, through Hatoyama’s mediation, a unity deal with Kan and proposed a set-up where he would Kan would be prime minister and he would be secretary-general. This deal would, however, lead to Sengoku’s removal. According to a report by the Yomiuri Shinbun, which is based on its source, Kan was initially warm to the idea but Sengoku and others prevailed upon him to stand his ground and call Ozawa’s bluff.

    Also, insiders say that Ozawa was initially planning to field another puppet, but he could not find a guy strong enough to face Kan.

    Another view is that Ozawa was not running to win but only to gain a leverage to force Kan to stop side-lining him. My problem with this is that, I think, by calling Ozawa’s bluff, Kan and his group has effectively signaled that they are serious in stripping Ozawa of his inluence.

    It is possible that Ozawa is only trying to divide the party in order to field a unity candidate. This unity candidate would not necessarily have to be an Ozawa puppet, but someone that would at least level the playing field between the Ozawa and the anti-Ozawa groups. This way, Ozawa could earn enough space for him to maneuver his way back to his former position.

    The prospect of a Kan giving way to a unity candidate is, I think, weak because of the surge in Kan’s popularity, which is actually just an anti-Ozawa instead of pro-Kan sentiment. The anti-Ozawa group is calling Ozawa’s bluff simply because it knows that Ozawa is fast becoming the underdog. Still, they should not count Ozawa out; the guy’s not stupid and has a history of pulling incredible surprises.

    I also read a blog speculating that Ozawa, should we win, could avoid the people’s wrath by appointing another puppet to be prime minister while he focus on being party president. I understand this set-up is happening in India where Singh is prime minister but not president of the ruling party.

    So, is Ozawa really gunning for PM to become PM, or to set the stage for something else?

    I really don’t know. Reading Ozawa’s mind is quite a challenge.

  3. Hmm… Interesting hypotheses. Am also thinking of the following possibilities:

    1. Ozawa as a sacrificial lamb to skew attention away from a possible LDP resurgence.

    2. Ozawa as a sacrificial lamb to walk his own talk of fundamentalist Japanese values and capture the growing conservative base in the party (and the nation).

    3. Ozawa stepping out of contention late in the race in order to make way for a moderate candidate.

    4. Ozawa striking a deal with the LDP, promising the power they once had and leaving the mistakes of DPJ to start anew

    It is true that Ozawa’s recent decisions and political gambits may seem contradictory to his old values. But they just reveal how complex his ideology is.

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