It’s difficult to make sense of Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) because, well, it just doesn’t make sense.
Only 51 of the so-called Ozawa children joined the ex-DPJ strongman when he defected on Monday, and two of them backtracked on the very same day, bringing the number of pro-Ozawa defectors to 49. Not only is this number not enough to deprive the DPJ of its majority in the Lower House, it’s also decreasing. Yesterday, one Ozawa defector repented to the DPJ while another declared that he will not be joining an Ozawa proto-party but will instead be an independent.
A report by the Japan Times mentioned that a second wave of pro-Ozawa defections could be looming, but with the initial Ozawa blitzkrieg this underwhelming, one can be forgiven for ruling such a scenario out. In fact, I can bet that the immediate concern in Ozawa’s office is not to encourage more defections from the DPJ but to prevent counter-defections.
The new Ozawa group, assuming the pro-Ozawa Kizuna Party joins it, may gain enough votes to introduce a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. But having such a motion passed would be next to impossible, since that would require not only the support of all non-DPJ parties, including the Communists, but the defection of around twenty DPJ members as well.
This has actually been a victory for Prime Minister Noda. As Dr. Corey Wallace, an observer of Japanese politics, opined, Ozawa’s underwhelming defection has solved the Prime Minister’s dilemma on how to handle the rebels who voted against his tax hike pet project. With Ozawa in the party, Prime Minister Noda had been under pressure from both the DPJ and his tax hike partner, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to severely punish the rebels, which could have resulted in a bigger defection that could have compromised the DPJ’s majority. With Ozawa gone, the Prime Minister has been able to adopt a strategically lenient tack without appearing weak.
Moreover, with Ozawa gone and all the other party heavyweights co-opted, Prime Minister Noda is set to be re-elected party president this September, unless he makes a major gaffe in the next two months. Who knows, he might even be the first Japanese premier since Junichiro Koizumi to stay in office beyond the traditional one-year shelf life.
As for Ozawa, the prospects are not very promising. Without the DPJ’s protection, he would probably have to spend the rest of his time in the Diet answering questions from several committees investigating his past shenanigans. Perhaps more painfully, Ozawa, long regarded for his catalytic role in Japan’s political history, would probably descend into political irrelevance; meaning, like that blue-eyed shogun of post-war Japan, the shadow shogun would just have to fade away. To avoid this fate, Ozawa would have to build a viable political vehicle. If he can’t increase his group’s numbers, he would have to join forces with others.
A reunion with the LDP-Komeito bloc is extremely unlikely, since that erstwhile ruling coalition still has an axe to grind against Ozawa. The LDP would rather maneuver to have an LDP-DPJ grand coalition– which could be headed by an LDP prime minister, who knows?– than join hands with its two-time “destroyer.” Ozawa would have to find another partner.
Perhaps the best chance for Ozawa to stay relevant is to strike a partnership with the charismatic Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, and the loose movement that he leads.
A Political Science professor from a leading university in Osaka, whom I met last week in an international conference on North Korea in Manila, says that Mayor Hashimoto’s real goal is to gain control of the Kantei, and that he sees the next election as a litmus test of sorts for this ambition. This probably explains his openness to the idea of a tie-up with Ozawa. Despite the Osaka Restoration Association’s pro-tax hike stance, for instance, the Mayor has criticized the Noda government’s “betrayal” of the DPJ manifesto, saying that Ozawa’s actions are “understandable.”
The problem is that Mayor Hashimoto’s bloc is a loose entente that is hardly monolithic. The Mayor’s partner, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, has made it clear that the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto, written by Ozawa, is incompatible with the Osaka Restoration Association’s ideals and that the Association should therefore not join Ozawa’s group. Another important player, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is planning to form a conservative party that will join a Hashimoto coalition, has a personal animosity with Ozawa. Building consensus with these political actors would be very challenging, to say the least.
Ozawa’s backroom skills will again be tested, perhaps for the last time.