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Monday, Oct. 29, 2007



Ozawa aims for credibility

Ichiro Ozawa's leadership within the Democratic Party of Japan has become stronger than ever following the party's resounding victory in the July 29 Upper House election.

Even those who had thought his leadership would come to an end with that election are now increasingly relying on him to lead the party to another victory in the general election of the Lower House expected in the not-too-distant future.

When former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abruptly announced his resignation, Ozawa was all smiles, showing every confidence to reporters that it was his party's Upper House election victory that forced Abe to step down.

His confidence did not last for long, however, as a number of DPJ lower house members paradoxically felt that Abe's resignation came too soon and would work against them in the next election. Indeed, Koze Watanabe and other senior party leaders admitted that the Liberal Democratic Party under Abe would have been easier to beat, and said things have changed with Yasuo Fukuda at the helm of the LDP.

Ozawa's basic strategy has been to force the government to dissolve the Lower House and call an early general election while his leadership remains intact on the strength of the DPJ's Upper House election victory. But things aren't all that simple for the DPJ, which is regarded by many as "congeries" of groups with different political backgrounds — one led by former party president Seiji Maehara, another by secretary general Yukio Hatoyama, a group of lawmakers who had belonged to the former Democratic Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party, and those who defected from the LDP with Ozawa.

In addition to these political backgrounds, there are policy differences among DPJ members of the legislature, ranging from rightwingers led by Maehara to ex-Socialists who are staunchly opposed to amending the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Despite the Upper House election victory, the DPJ, due to this lack of party cohesion, has failed to gain full-fledged recognition from the general public as an equal rival in a new two-party system.

Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the significance of the DPJ's depriving the LDP of a majority in the Upper House. The effect will last for at least three years and possibly another six years. Even if the LDP wins in the Lower House election, it will remain a minority party in the upper chamber, leaving the nation's political landscape in a state of instability.

Moreover, the LDP could lose the all-important two-thirds majority in the Lower House or even fall into a minority status, which would mean transferring control of the government to the DPJ.

Even though DPJ secretary general Hatoyama has repeatedly called for an early dissolution of the Lower House, his party has a lot of homework to do. In fact, the DPJ has yet to select candidates for about 100 of 300 constituencies. Its attempts to form political alliances with the People's New Party and the Social Democratic Party have not made much headway.

One factor favoring the DPJ in the next general election is that the Japan Communist Party has changed its long-standing policy of fielding one candidate for each of 300 constituencies regardless of its chances of winning. It now appears that the Communists will be contesting races in only about 130 districts. Although it is preposterous to expect the DPJ to garner all would-be Communist votes, this change seems certain to help DPJ candidates nonetheless.

The focus of Ozawa's strategy of trying to force the government to call an early general election is his opposition to having the Maritime Self-Defense Force continue its mission of supplying fuel to U.S. naval and allied vessels in the Indian Ocean as part of the international fight against terrorism. With the fuel-supply law due to expire Nov. 1, the government and the LDP ruling coalition and New Komeito are trying to pass legislation to extend the mission.

As the basis for opposing the MSDF operations, Ozawa points out that such action is not justified by any resolution adopted by the United Nations. At his meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer, he unequivocally expressed his opposition.

Within the DPJ ranks, however, voices have opined that the fuel-supply operations are a good way in which Japan can cooperate with other countries in fighting terrorism. What bothers the DPJ of late is that, according to various opinion polls, opposition to the Indian Ocean mission is losing steam.

The government, meanwhile, has succeeded in persuading the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution expressing appreciation to Japan for cooperating in the antiterrorist campaign by means of the fuel-supply operations.

All of this has created uneasiness among some Democrats, who wonder whether continued opposition to the MSDF operations will work to their advantage in the election campaign.

Ozawa, meanwhile, is bent on building a good track record for his party's policies by presenting a series of legislative bills to the Upper House, where the DPJ holds a majority. Bills related to the national pension system and farm subsidies — both pledged by the party during the Upper House election campaign — have already been submitted.

These DPJ-sponsored bills are certain to pass the Upper House, but there is little chance of their making it through the Lower House, where the ruling coalition still holds sway.

If the dissolution of the Lower House and the subsequent general election are delayed for too long, there is the danger that the general public will become fed up with the DPJ for failing to translate their pledges into action. It is for this reason that the new Fukuda regime will do everything in its power to put off the general election as it recovers from the shock of Abe's sudden resignation.

Ex-DPJ president Katsuya Okada appears concerned that many lawmakers are keeping themselves busy studying policy matters to prepare for the imminent Lower House election. He is urging them to return to their constituencies and make contact with voters.

Ozawa seems to feel the same way, and will launch a nationwide tour in a determined bid to win votes in single-member constituencies.

This is an abridged translation of an article that appeared in the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine of in-depth analysis of Japan's political, social and economic landscape.

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