Some of us who keep an eye on Japanese politics felt something close to angina at this month's precipitous, stage-managed election of Hatoyama Yukio as the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan. When Ozawa Ichirō finally came to the decision that his continued presence at the top of the ticket was deleterious to the party's chances in the next election, he could have stepped back and allowed the party rank and file choose a leader who could be a ballot box asset - just as the Liberal Democratic Party local chapters chose Koizumi Jun'ichirō in 2001.Instead, Ozawa arranged for a rushed election with only DPJ Diet members as electors, dooming the quietly anti-Ozawa line candidacy of Okada Katsuya.
Okada was the clear choice over Hatoyama both in the DPJ local chapters and among the general public. In failing to elect Okada as its new leader the party left money on the table - it walked away from several percentage points of support in the next general election. The party also missed a chance to rid itself of a dark cloud of suspicion hanging over it since the arrest (merited or not) of Ozawa's right hand man Ōkubo Toshinori.
Nevertheless, I do not fault the logic of Ozawa's power play. Throughout the fall and winter months the combined fecklessness of prime minister and LDP party president Asō Tarō and his allies sent Cabinet and LDP polls numbers through the floor -- at one point down to a single digit in support of the Cabinet. Only the near divine intercession of the prosecutors prevented a crisis for the government and the ruling coalition.
During all these months and years of decay in the popularity of the LDP, Ozawa has been the DPJ's leader. If his past as a fixer with ties to the construction industry was indeed such a burden for his party, why did public support for the DPJ rise through the year prior to Ōkubo's arrest? If Ozawa or his policies were so fundamentally sullied, how was it that the DPJ manage to score a huge victory in the 2007 House of Councillors elections? How, if he is such a millstone for a party, was it possible that he persevered as the ruling coalition burned through two prime ministers (Abe Shinzō and Fukuda Yasuo) and was rapidly burning through a third?
The media members of the LDP and many of Okada's supporters portrayed Okada's candidacy as chance for the DPJ to repudiate the Ozawa Way. From Ozawa and his acolytes the immediate question would be "What is there to be repudiated?" -- and they would be right. From the opinion polls published prior to the Ōkubo arrest the public was willing to support an Ozawa-led DPJ as the party of government -- as long as it meant the country could rid itself of Asō Tarō and LDP.
In Ozawa's current calculations, nothing significant has changed on the other side of the political ledger. Asō is still feckless; the LDP is still a mess of crouching rent-seekers and spineless reform banner wavers. While the arrest of his political secretary means Ozawa himself cannot lead the DPJ to victory in an election, there is no ostensible reason to deviate from the course that Ozawa had set.
So why should Ozawa countenance the election of an upstart who in the weeks after the arrest bobbed and weaved so as to position himself -- in fact if not in name -- as the anti-Ozawa candidate? One who had led the party to electoral disaster in 2005 and whose main ally Maehara Seiji had turned the DPJ into a laughingstock with the forged email controversy -- the pair of disasters that had forced the party to turn to Ozawa as a savior?
Was Ozawa ever going to permit a usurper receiving the credit for taking the DPJ over the finish line -- when it had been Ozawa who had done all the hard work of making the party a credible political force?
As for a backlash against the rushed election and the anti-democratic restriction of the electors to sitting Diet members (many if not most of whom owe their seats to Ozawa) resulting in the virtual handing of the victory to Hatoyama -- the DPJ has little to fear. The LDP has nothing to say on the matter. The selection of Koizumi's predecessor Mori Yoshirō consisted of five men coming to an agreement over which among them would take power as they all met in the hospital nearby the sadly still warm body of the fallen Obuchi Keizō.
In Nagata-chō terms, the DPJ leadership contest was a rollicking, open-ended affair...and will likely not matter in a material way. For if Asō Tarō goes out on the campaign trail with the same inappropriate mix of levity and snide contempt he exhibited on Wednesday during the Diet party leader debate, the way Prime Minister Hatoyama came to be chosen the leader of the DPJ will be simply forgotten.