If media reports are to be believed, Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro is preparing to testify to the House of Representative Deliberative Council on Political Ethics (seiji rinri chosakai) regarding the real estate dealings of the Rikuzankai, his political fundraising organization.
Why this? Why now?
First and foremost, his party needs for him to do it. While he has so far escaped indictment as regards this case involving a piece of land bought in order to construct a dormitory for his small army of subordinates, his former secretaries have not. Given the strong presumption of guilt that goes with indictment and the belief that Ozawa is a hands on manager of all that touches him, Ozawa escaping the prosecutors' nets so far is seen merely as evidence of his craftiness, rather than innocence.
As the case against Ozawa and his aides has lurched forward, the DPJ has come under severe criticism for not ridding itself of its troublesome and seemingly troubled secretary-general. Some 83% of the public, according to Kyodo's latest poll, believes that Ozawa has an obligation to resign from his party post. Ozawa's continued tenure has contributed, along with the performance of Prime Minister Hatoyama, in a dramatic decline in popular support for the party, and a sharp drop in the percentage of voters who say they will vote for the party's candidates in this summer's House of Councillors elections. Where once there was yawning gulf of 20% between those like to vote for the DPJ and and those likely to vote for its chief rival the Liberal Democratic Party, a collapse in support for the DPJ now leaves a spread of less than 6% between the two parties, with a huge block of the voters (29%-to-45%, depending upon the poll) up for grabs as to whom they will support.
If the DPJ is to have any chance to grab the majority or even a plurality of these floating voters, Ozawa has to either come clean about his financial dealings or step aside.
So why would Ozawa be agreeing to go through the process now, rather than appearing before the Council earlier, before the controversy eroded away so much of the public's good will toward the DPJ?
While looking out for the party's interests is at the top of Ozawa's to-do list every day, he has a primary obligation to look out for himself. Appearing before the Council before talking to the prosecutors would have been stupid. Talking to the Council after the prosecutors had passed on indicting him would have been superfluous -- it would have given a chance for his many enemies to take pot shots at him, with little upside for Ozawa himself or the party.
Now that the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution (kensatsu shinsakai) has issued its condemnation of the prosecutors's decision not to indict Ozawa* , the prosecutors have asked Ozawa to come and talk to them again. This he will do -- but since they will be asking the same questions as before, he will be giving the same answers.
It is hard to say whether or not the prosecutors will indict Ozawa following questioning . Such a decision will be an admission that they that failed to do their jobs properly the first time around. If they do not indict Ozawa after what will be his third little go-around with them, or, what is more likely, they fail to take action within 90 days, the Committee will issue its own order to indict Ozawa.
With the prospect of further months and months of circus-like media speculation over the fate of Ozawa in the courts, the secretary-general should be looking for a way to at least clear the air.
So why clear the air in the Deliberative Council, rather than in a safer venue like a one-on-one interview with a sympathetic journalist -- if an Ozawa-sympathetic journalist could be found?
Strangely enough, submitting himself to questioning by his opponents within the confines of the Deliberative Council of the House of Representatives is probably safer for Ozawa than facing a member of the press.
First, he has already been through questioning by prosecutors. He probably knows every single item in the case against him and every single angle from it could be approached. It is unlikely that members of the opposition have anything new that could throw him off-balance.
Second, he faces no chance of any other action from the Council itself. It takes the agreement of at least 2/3 of those present to come to a decision. With a majority of Council members Democrats, the chances of Ozawa earning censure are less than infinitesimal. Indeed, the number of times that a Deliberative Council has condemned the member of the Diet appearing before it: zero.
Third, he will face no surprises from Council. This comes from the fact that in 1985, he himself wrote the rules governing the actions of the Council, which were perceived to be in need of revision following the conviction of former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei in the Lockheed Scandal.
Whether appearing before the Council will have any positive effect on the public's perceptions of Ozawa and/or the DPJ depends on whether or not Ozawa accedes to the concept that politics is as much theater as it is the accumulation of power. If the Council's examination of Ozawa is done in public (it can be done behind closed doors) -- he will have the chance to assert, as he has done time and time again, that there is no crime here --- that he has accepted no illegal donations, that he knows nothing about the accounting mistakes of his former secretaries and has no idea why they made them. If he acts as though his opponents are merely doing their jobs, and does not lapse into his harrumphing mode, he has a decent chance to score some political points for his team.
He has it in him to answer questions with civility and with smile. We have seen it before, as in his press conference after he talked the prosecutors.
All he has to do is want to clear the air badly enough.
* There was never any question that the Committee would encourage the prosecutors to indict Ozawa. The whole point of bringing a case to the Committee's attention is to force the issuance of an indictment.