Tokyo is currently abuzz over the decision of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to reshuffle his Cabinet yesterday. He fired key officials like Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister and former candidate for Prime Minister Michihiko Kano; Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism Minister Takeshi Maeda; and Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka. Kano’s ministry was implicated in a recent Chinese spy scandal, while the other ministers have been widely criticized for several embarrassing gaffes. Maeda and Tanaka, for example, had been officially censured by the opposition-controlled House of Councillors.
But the motivation behind the sacking of these ranking officials is not to impose accountability for their infractions but to pave the way for negotiations with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the proposed increase in the country’s sales tax, the Prime Minister’s pet project. In short, the ministers are being offered to the opposition as sacrificial lambs.
The Prime Minister is trying to win the opposition over after failing to gain the support of Japan’s acknowledged shadow shogun, Ichiro Ozawa, for the tax hike measure. Ozawa, who has recently been reinstated as a member of the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) after having been acquitted of corruption charges, has consistently opposed any increase in the nation’s taxes. Prime Minister Noda argues that the country needs the tax hike to finance its ballooning social services and to pay off its debt. Ozawa, on the other hand, insists that the government must first reduce its spending, and therefore streamline the bureaucracy, in order to solve the deficit. He’s been very consistent with this position ever since.
The two rounds of talks between the Prime Minister and the shadow shogun ended in a deadlock last week. And while Ozawa hinted that he is still open to continued talks, Prime Minister Noda, who had called the negotiations with Ozawa a “lifetime gamble,” is making it appear that he’s giving up. Many are saying that the stalemate has diminished the Prime Minister’s political stock and boosted Ozawa’s.
“All this pomp surrounding a meeting with a member of his own party, as if he were welcoming a foreign dignitary, is a huge blow to the Prime Minister’s authority,” says LDP president Sadikazu Tanigaki.
Of course, that “member of the party” happens to be Japan’s leading political tactician who commands an army of around one hundred loyal Lower House parliamentarians. Prime Minister Noda’s tax policy won’t clear the Diet without those one hundred votes, which is why he’s trying to lure the opposition’s votes instead. This goal– gaining the opposition’s support after failing to get your party-mates’ nod– is a political peculiarity that can only happen in Japan.
But is the Prime Minister really trying to lure the LDP as an end goal in itself, or is he merely trying to bluff his way to gain Ozawa’s grudging support? Is this another game of brinkmanship, Nagatacho-style?
The LDP has two preconditions for its support for the Prime Minister’s tax hike proposal. Firstly, it wants the DPJ to part ways with the hugely unpopular Ozawa. Secondly, it wants the Diet vote on the tax measure to be followed by a snap election. The LDP, which has recently made gains in opinion polls, badly needs an election soon, before the Third Force movement led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto could assemble its national machinery and therefore present itself to the public as the viable non-LDP alternative to the underwhelming DPJ.
For Prime Minister Noda, an early election means that his party could lose its grip on power only three years after it overthrew the long-entrenched LDP hegemony. For Ozawa, on the other hand, an early election could obliterate his army of one hundred, since they are all political lightweights with no substantial machinery to keep their Diet seats. It doesn’t help that Ozawa’s war chest has been practically depleted, and that he’s now too old to build another political party from scratch.
“I’m willing to risk my political career for this,” says Prime Minister Noda. By trying to lure the LDP, and hinting that he may agree to hold early elections in exchange for its support, the premier seems to be telling Ozawa that he’s willing to risk the DPJ’s hold on power, too.
Will the shadow shogun call the bluff?