Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Noda-Ozawa Meeting

Tomorrow at this time, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko will be meeting with former party leader Ozawa Ichiro. Noda's stated goal going into the meeting is to convince Ozawa to support the government's bills raising the consumption tax from 5% to 10%. Ozawa has publicly stated that he is not inclined to support the tax. (E).

So is the meeting a preamble to a breakup of the Democratic Party of Japan over a point of principle? Or it red meat thrown to sate the voracious news media monster? A song-and-dance show put on by the two men in order to confuse the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito?

That I should ask these rhetorical questions telegraphs my feelings that this is a charade.

Why feel that this is a meeting with a predetermined outcome, one of Ozawa tossing the decision to vote for or against the bill to his followers to decide on their own?

- Ozawa is meeting Noda at DPJ headquarters. As a general rule, Ozawa meets with no one -- though the weeklies have Ozawa "going to Hachioji" with some regularity -- unless there are votes as the door prize (remember his pilgrimage to Koya-san?).

Ostensibly, DPJ headquarters is a neutral venue for the meeting. After all both men are DPJ members. However, as Noda is the DPJ's leader, party headquarters is his house: he is the master of it. For Ozawa to show up at headquarters makes it clear who is calling upon whom.

- Noda has stated there will be only one meeting, or as he colorfully put it, "I will explain that my intent is for this to be a single meeting on this one issue, a single last throw of the dice for everything (kenkon itteki)." (J)

Such brinkmanship is not Noda's style. The PM is something of an anaconda. He wraps his coils around you, waiting patiently, tightening his grip each time you inhale, until you asphyxiate.

If he is saying, "This is it. My way or the highway," in advance of a conference with the kingmaker who supposedly enjoys the loyalty of 1/4 of the DPJ's Diet delegation, then the likelihood that the two are going to have a serious debate with an outcome still in doubt is pretty close to zero.

- The DPJ has already had its internal debate on the bills raising the consumption tax. Ozawa's side lost that debate.

Noda will not throw a defeated man a lifeline.

- Cultivating the image of the DPJ as hopelessly divided has its uses. In addition to keeping journalists busy chasing after wild geese, it confuses the heck out of the opposition.

It would be unwise to head into a general election with the party's image being that of a house divided. However, due to the effective current constitutional ban on elections, the leadership of the DPJ has the freedom to play this purported deep split for at least a little while longer.

- Ozawa is in the Hotel California of Japanese jurisprudence ("You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave"). On May 9, the private lawyers prosecuting Ozawa on violation of the political funds act appealed his April 26 acquittal. The appeals process is normally relatively speedy, with the higher court judge having a strong incentive to affirm the judgment of the lower court. However, in the Ozawa case, the presiding judge's presentation cast doubt upon the veracity of Ozawa's testimony -- and by extension his determination of Ozawa's innocence. This opens the door for the appeals judges to reverse the verdict.

In any case, Ozawa will be stuck in an indicted state for a goodly while -- which makes it highly unlikely he and his flock will leave the DPJ. With their champion hobbled, the Ozawa loyalists have almost zero chance of surviving as an independent political force.

So though his loyalists and hangers-on attend Ozawa's seminars and he their fundraising parties, he is not going anywhere, party-wise.

The question for the political commentariat after tomorrow should not be "Whither Ozawa?" but how many of Ozawa's followers will abstain from the votes on the consumption tax bills, considering the light punishments the party meted out to the first-termers who absented themselves from vote on the no confidence measure against Kan Naoto's Cabinet.

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