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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008


Fukuda and Ozawa plotting

A generally accepted view is that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is bent on forcing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and call general elections just as soon as possible, while the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito seeks to put off the elections at least until after the July summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Hokkaido, or preferably until the expiration of the Lower House members' tenure in September next year.

A close look at what has happened between late last year and January indicates, however, that the words and deeds of none other than Fukuda, who is president of the LDP, and DPJ head Ichiro Ozawa do not conform to this wisdom.

There appears to be little sign of serious confrontation between the two. Perhaps it is their wishy-washy attitudes that make it difficult to predict just when the nation will go to the polls.

At the DPJ's national convention in Yokohama on Jan. 16, secretary general Yukio Hatoyama told the delegates, including some 230 would-be candidates, that a party victory in the next election is the only way to put an end to the current chaos arising out of the split in the Diet — in which the LDP-Komeito coalition holds a commanding majority in the Lower House while the DPJ and other opposition groups occupy more than half the seats in the Upper House.

At the same meeting, however, Ozawa cautioned fellow party members not to assume that the election will take place anytime soon. Seeing little likelihood of the DPJ winning in the next general election, he is in no mood to force the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House.

Fukuda, meanwhile, told LDP lawmakers Jan. 18, as the ordinary session of the Diet opened, that although many difficulties lie ahead, everything will work out fine if party members work closely with each other.

Many would wonder where such optimism comes from, given the actual situation, which seems to defy any attempt to restore normal legislative proceedings. As Fukuda is known to be an extremely cautious person, it is only because he is convinced that Ozawa is not serious about forcing an early election that he can be so confident in putting off a nationwide vote.

It may be no exaggeration to say that Fukuda and Ozawa share a mutual sense of trust. For example, Fukuda's policy speech, delivered before both houses of the Diet at the outset of the current session, was filled with political slogans that were also pet themes of the DPJ — so much so that the DPJ's Hatoyama said sarcastically that the speech sounded like one from the DPJ leader.

Maybe the prime minister's speech was to reiterate his call for the DPJ to take part in a "grand coalition." If so, it's easy to understand why Ozawa did not enthusiastically applaud Hatoyama's remarks.

Another example is in the one-on-one debate between Fukuda and Ozawa before the Lower House Budget Committee in January. Ozawa made no attempt to push the prime minister into a tight corner, and Fukuda responded to the opposition chief in a polite manner, leading one veteran political correspondent to call the debate a "disgrace."

In effect, the two appear to be airing the same message: "Minor differences of opinion between us must be ironed out for our best common interest."

But why? The answer lies in the idea of the "grand coalition" between the LDP and the DPJ, which was agreed upon between Fukuda and Ozawa in November before being withdrawn because of opposition from Ozawa's lieutenants. It would be no surprise to anyone if the two sought any opportunity to rehash the scheme.

This may explain why Ozawa left the Lower House chamber just before the vote on a bill to have the Maritime Self-Defense Force resume supplying fuel to U.S. and other naval vessels engaged in antiterrorist operations in the Indian Ocean.

The bill had passed the Lower House but was rejected by the Upper House. The ruling coalition then brought the bill back to the Lower House, where, under constitutional provisions, approval by a two-thirds majority enacted it into law.

Ozawa left the chamber before the final vote, saying he had to rush to Osaka to campaign for the DPJ gubernatorial candidate. The fact remains that he did not cast a negative ballot against the bill, perhaps as a gesture of gratitude to the ruling parties for not scrapping a DPJ bill to send Self-Defense Force troops to Afghanistan for reconstruction assistance.

These events appear to substantiate speculation that agreement has been reached between Fukuda and Ozawa that the Lower House will not be dissolved after the Diet passes the budget bills for fiscal 2008, which starts in April. Thorny issues such as whether to maintain the high gasoline tax and the appointment of a new Bank of Japan governor will probably be settled regardless.

It is difficult to tell when and how the two became so close. The likely answer goes back to the agreement last year to form a grand coalition. That was the first time the two had met for any serious discussion. Even after the scheme failed, Ozawa said the alliance for the DPJ, which has not held the reins of government, would have been like "shooting three birds with one stone."

Fukuda, meanwhile, has confided that he had been thinking of forming a grand coalition as early as last summer when it became certain that the LDP would lose badly in the July 29 Upper House election. He also confided that he decided to succeed Shinzo Abe to try to realize the grand coalition and that he kept most Abe-appointed Cabinet ministers because he hoped to form a full-fledged Fukuda Cabinet after a new coalition was formed.

Fukuda and Ozawa have been taking every opportunity to confirm, if only implicitly, that general elections will not take place anytime soon and that they will try again to create a grand coalition by combining their parties.

The big question during the first half of this year will be whether this mysterious relationship between the two will culminate in a historic reorganization of Japan's political landscape.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics.

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