Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ozawa Ichiro's Last Battle As A Democrat?

On Monday the 22nd, the Tokyo Shimbun carried an editorial criticizing the Democratic Party of Japan for being in such a rush to select a new leader to replace Kan Naoto (ja). While the editors acknowledge that the party should move with dispatch to eliminate the political vacuum that has resulted from the cabinet's support numbers having fallen into the low teens, they argue that the candidates should be engaged in serious public debate over where the party will go on a number of pending issues. As they note with dismay, however, with the party election set for the 29th, there is little chance that the candidates will clash over matters of substance.

In the absence of a debate over policy, the election for leadership of the DPJ is boiling down to a single issue: will former party leader Ozawa Ichiro be let out of his cage or not? The current party executive committee has battled mightily to keep Ozawa away from the levers of power, stripping him of his party privileges in February and outfoxing Hatoyama Yukio in the runup to the June no-confidence motion that had threatened to topple the Kan government. Ozawa, however, cannot resist the temptation to be in control of the party again -- even if it only as before through a surrogate occupying the party leader's spot – and is trying to turn the party leadership election rules to his own ends.

The DPJ leadership election that takes place on the 29th will be a mid-term election, meaning that the only participants will be active members of the Diet. In a general leadership election, party supporters and local assembly members participate in the voting. It was through his support among the party supporters and the local assembly members that Kan was able to bury Ozawa in the September 2010 overall vote. Amongst the Diet members, however, the vote was tantalizingly close, with Ozawa receiving the votes of 200 party members and Kan receiving 209.

In this election the votes of 398 party members are at stake. The full party representation in the Diet is 407 members, but Ozawa has his voting rights suspended, as do the eight senior members of the party who either abstained or did not show up for the no-confidence motion in June.

When three or more candidates are in the running for the position of leader of the party there can be two rounds of voting. If no candidate wins 50%+1 votes in a first round, then the top two vote getters of the first round run against each other in a second round.

This rule is what Ozawa and Hatoyama hope to exploit in order to win back power in the party. The number of members of the DPJ loyal to Ozawa number about 120 and the number loyal to Hatoyama Yukio around 40. The number of members loyal to former foreign minister Maehara Seiji is around 50, the number loyal to Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko is around 30 and the number loyal to Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Kano Michihiko, former Environment Minister Ozawa Sakihito and former Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Mabuchi Sumio, and Chairman of Fundamental National Policies Tarutoko Shinji is around 20 each.

Ozawa's strategy is to keep as many candidates as possible in the race. He has clearly been encouraging each candidate he has met with pledges of support from amongst his group members. However, on election day, in a carefully calculated ballet, a given fraction of Ozawa's close supporters, say 50 or so, join with Hatoyama's supporters to vote for Minister of Economic, Trade and Industry Kaieda Banri – whilst the remainder of Ozawa's supporters vote for a second pliable candidate – most likely Kano. Maehara and Noda each receive the votes from their group members, with unaffiliated security hawks voting for Maehara, unaffiliated fiscal conservatives voting for Noda. Anti-tax rise crusaders would then vote for Mabuchi while Ozawa Sakihito and Tarutoko supporters would each vote for their man.

The final results of this first round of voting could then be very close, with the top two vote getters receiving just over 90 votes and the third place finisher just under 90. Ozawa is counting on Kaieda and Kano (or possibly Tarutoko, who ran against Kan in June 2010 with Ozawa support) to be those top two, relegating the more popular Maehara to third place – and thus out of the runoff, where, if he were paired against an Ozawa client, he would win easily.

The slim possibility that this divide and conquer plan could work has energized Ozawa. He has not looked so alive in months -- and that is alive in the mammalian sense: drinks water, breathes air, walks around, has hair.

The clearest indication that Ozawa is manipulating possible candidates with promises of support from his group is the number of candidates who have stated a willingness to reverse the stripping of Ozawa's party privileges – or who have offered obfuscating blather when asked their intentions. Ozawa Sakihito, the weakest candidate in the race, has said straight out that the punishment is unmerited. Mabuchi, also in a weak position, has stated that unless new facts come to light, a review of the punishment is obligatory. Noda has said that he would like to gear his actions according to the situation -- whatever that means -- whilst Kaieda has stated that "for the past year, the party has not been fighting at its full strength." Tarutoko and Kano have tried to avoid the question, Tarutoko saying that the issue of revoking Ozawa's punishment should not be an issue for the candidates for the position of party leader (which is an admission that it is) and Kano saying that as a member of the current government, he cannot comment on the issue.

Only Maehara has come out against revocation, saying that the decisions of the party executive committee have to be taken seriously.

Members of the anti-Ozawa majority in the party are not unaware of Ozawa's potential to turn the runoff into an all-Ozawa client affair (en). They can count just as well as Ozawa can and not a few of them are frightened.

The anti-Ozawa mainstream leaders are not without a few cards of their own to play. Mabuchi, who will be struggling to sign up the mandatory 20 Diet members needed to support his candidacy, is a former Noda group member. It is not inconceivable that Noda will persuade him to drop his candidacy, in return for promises that the party will focus more on measures boosting economic growth. Noda himself must clearly be thinking about dropping out, preparing to tell his supporters to line up behind Maehara. That he has not done so already is possibly to keep Ozawa busy plotting, rather than schooling his candidates on what they need to say to win support from unattached members of the party.

That there is little talk of policy (seisaku) and a lot about maneuvers (seikyoku) should not dismay the editors of the Tokyo Shimbun or anyone else. This is the DPJ's Sekigahara (en). The fates of those who will rise or fall will depend the result of this battle. If Maehara finishes in either in first or second place after the first round of voting, then Ozawa's and Hatoyama's influence on the party will go into eclipse.

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