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Ozawa fights back

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In Brief

Appearing at a press conference at DPJ headquarters this morning, DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro, under fire following the arrest of Okubo Takanori, his chief secretary, was defiant.

Ozawa stated that he would not step down following the arrest, and insisted that his secretary received money from Nishimatsu construction in compliance with the political funds control law.

In his press conference, Ozawa accused the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office with abusing its powers for political purposes — he described the prosecutor's investigation as being "without precedent." (MTC provides more detail for why this arrest may have been politically motivated.)

Even if Ozawa somehow manages to survive this affair, the damage may well have been done, both to him and his party.


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The first reason is simply how the Japanese press operates. The press wasted no time initiating a feeding frenzy surrounding the scandal, with the Sankei Shimbun — which had just published a lengthy hatchet job on Ozawa the day before the scandal broke — the most aggressive shark. A glance at Sankei’s most recent political articles reveals that it has published thirteen articles on the arrest since the story broke Tuesday, not counting the four-part reprint of Ozawa’s press conference and an editorial running three pages online calling for a full accounting from Ozawa. This glut may be partially attributed to Sankei‘s heftier web presence, but considering its recent attack on Ozawa, there is obviously more to it. Sankei has taken it upon itself to undermine Ozawa, and it will do everything it can to flog this story. Sankei is not alone, of course. A scandal involving the possible next prime minister and the man everyone in Japanese politics loves to hate? Too good to pass up. And so Yomuiri reports, without naming any names, that part of the DPJ has called for Ozawa to step down. And Mainichi provides a handy reminder that Nishimatsu had ties with the late Kanemaru Shin, a favorite bogeyman from the old LDP.

All of which goes to suggest that Ken Worsley is wrong to argue that the election will simply be a matter of measuring “21 million yen in illegal donations possibly going to balance out against 54 million missing pension payments.” Politics do not work like that — electoral politics do not work like that. The voters are not keeping a running account of the LDP’s failures versus Ozawa’s and the DPJ’s shortcomings. Perceptions matter. Reputations matter. As I wrote in my initial response to this affair, Ozawa has spent years trying to remake himself in the public eye, to present himself as an earnest reformer and not the clone of Tanaka Kakuei. It takes very little to destroy a reputation. By fighting back Ozawa might be able to undo some of the damage, but the initial response has surely undone much of his efforts to remake his public image. How much will it take for the public to conclude that they are better off sticking with the LDP — whose corruption and failures are well known — than switching to the unknown and “irresponsible” DPJ?

Given the irregularities surrounding the arrest, Ozawa and the DPJ are right to fight back. I was hasty in suggesting that Ozawa may have to step down, but much will depend on whether the prosecutor’s office is able to provide enough evidence to dispel claims that the arrest was politically motivated — and whether the press takes the irregularities seriously or whether it devotes all of its attention to judging Okubo (and Ozawa) guilty until proven innocent. Many are the scandals in which the man at the center of the scandal put up a brave front initially only to cave in the face of relentless pressure.

But there is no doubting that this is a blow to the DPJ. Ozawa has been a blessing for the DPJ, without question. He brought a much needed blend of political realism and policy vision to a party that lacked both in its half-decade of existence. He has disciplined its unruly ranks, forced the party’s members to focus on winning, and remade the party so that it can compete in electoral districts across the country. Despite press reports in recent years about potential defectors from the DPJ, he has successfully co-opted rivals and served as a glue for a party that was demoralized by the 2005 election and the 2006 Horie email scandal that led to the embarrassing resignation of Maehara Seiji. But all of that came with the taint of Ozawa’s past, both his LDP past and his past as the relentless schemer behind the Hosokawa-Hata non-LDP cabinets and during his wilderness years in the 1990s. A scandal like this was always possible, but it was a risk well worth taking.

Readers will note that I have not called the election for the LDP yet. I myself have argued that the LDP is so far gone that nothing can possibly save it. But Ozawa’s stumble has given the LDP an opening. It has changed the focus of public attention from incompetent and unpopular Aso to corrupt Ozawa, a much needed break for a government fighting for its life. If the media continues to probe, and if the prosecutor’s office helps to keep the story alive, Aso may continue to benefit from Ozawa’s being the subject of a feeding frenzy. Moreover, it may enable the LDP to go on the offensive, something it has been unable to do virtually from the moment Aso took office. The LDP has already jumped on Ozawa’s remarks about the US military presence in Japan — a Tuesday meeting of the defense policy subcommittee of the national defense division of the LDP’s Policy Research Council was apparently devoted to criticism of Ozawa — and now the arrest has given new life to another line of attack, one that the LDP has already used against Ozawa but which will not undoubtedly have greater resonance. The LDP will go on the offensive, with LDP reformists declaring that the LDP’s past is the DPJ’s present, while Prime Minister Aso stays above the fray, solemnly proclaiming that he is above politics and focused solely on fixing the economy. I’m not saying that this will be enough to rescue the LDP, but it does give the governing party hope that it did not have before. The party is already lowering its sights for the general election to 230 seats, which, if it can get them, would be enough sufficient for the LDP to sneak back into power with Komeito’s holding the key to power.

This outcome would be terrible for Japan.

An LDP-led government even more dependent on Komeito while still facing an upper house in opposition hands would make the current government look dynamic. Such a government would almost certainly trigger some form of realignment. Realignment, while perhaps necessary in the long term, will simply doom Japan to irrelevance in the near to medium term while the new parties reformed from the ashes of the old.

None of which is to say that a DPJ government would be a panacea, but at least a DPJ victory contains the possibility of a sharp break with the past and some progress on the problems facing Japan. Ozawa, for all his failings, is essential to producing a DPJ electoral victory and for making the most of such a victory. His authority, his charisma, and his political abilities are unmatched by any potential successors in the DPJ — and these qualities will be essential if the DPJ is to take on the bureaucracy, as it plans to do should it take power. But undermined by these allegations, Ozawa will have that much less authority over his party and in the eyes of the public.

Finally, as Janne Morén notes, all that may come of this is complete disillusionment with the political system, a sort of anti-“Yes we can”-ism. Some might say that Japan is already there, but I think there are still glimmers of hope among the public that it is not too late to change. Perhaps this can be overstated — Ozawa, after all, has never been seen as a saint — but this scandal may lead many to conclude that Japanese politics is simply beyond fixing.

That would be the worst possible consequence of this scandal. Japanese democracy cannot be reinvigorated without the public’s taking a keen interest in how the country is governed, even if taking a keen interest means being anger at the government’s failures.

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