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Murky outlook for general election in Japan

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In Brief

There is no question now that the outlook for the next general election — which a growing number of LDP officials are reportedly arguing should be held after dissolving the Diet in May — is muddier than before. The scandal in Ozawa Ichiro's political organization has overshadowed all else, including the re-passage this week of the budget-related expenditures bill for the second 2008 supplementary budget (and Koizumi Junichiro's absence from the vote).

After his press conference Wednesday, Ozawa has been silent, but everyone else is talking. Everyone that is, except Prime Minister Aso Taro, who refused to comment Thursday when asked about the DPJ response that the arrest was politically motivated. As expected, Aso has decided to stay above the fray, leaving the political point-scoring to his party. Aso reportedly told his chief cabinet secretary not to be gleeful about the arrest.


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The battle lines are clear: the DPJ will do all it can to make this a story about the abuse of power and anti-democratic behavior by an organ of the state, while the LDP will do all it can to keep the focus on the charges, whether or not Okubo is found guilty. The chiefs of the LDP’s factions spent Thursday defending the honor of the Tokyo district public prosecutor’s office. Machimura Nobutaka, for example, stated that the past arrest of LDP power brokers bears witness to the office’s “strict neutrality.” (Although Jiji notes that Ibuki Bunmei dissented from his colleagues and stated that it is “shameful” to revel in the non-policy mistakes of a rival. How decent of him.)

Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, was equally scandalized by the DPJ’s argument that the prosecutor’s office was underhanded, proclaiming, “Japan is a mature constitutional state — it’s impossible that the government would even think of such things as a politically motivated investigation.” There is, of course, a logical fallacy in that statement. Most would see the United States as a “mature constitutional state” and yet this week it came out that the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of interrogations that might have involved torture.

Meanwhile, the LDP cannot be too smug about Ozawa’s troubles, as some LDP politicians, including cabinet members Ishiba Shigeru and Noda Seiko, have realized. The public hasn’t forgotten about the LDP’s own ties with the construction industry, and it’s learning about ties between LDP politicians and Nishimatsu Construction in the wake of the Okubo arrest. Mori Yoshiro has indicated that his political support group will return 3 million Japanese yen in donations from a group connected to Nishimatsu. More significantly, Nikai Toshihiro, METI minister in the Aso cabinet, has announced that his faction will return 8.38 million yen, the amount that two Nishimatsu-connected political groups purchased in tickets to faction parties from 2004-2006 (although the groups through which the money was funneled no longer exist, raising the question of who will receive the money, if anyone). Mori and Nikai are presumably not alone among senior politicians who have received money from Nishimatsu. Has anyone taken a look at the accounts of Aso’s koenkai?

Things may yet take a turn for the worse for Ozawa, as Jun Okumura argues here. But for the moment the situation appears to have stabilized. The government remains unpopular and mired in the need to respond to the economic crisis. The LDP would like to go on the offensive, but is constrained by its own shady ties and is thus left merely defending the prosecutor’s office from DPJ accusations. The DPJ has suffered a public relations blow, but Ozawa still has enough of the party’s leaders behind him to soldier on barring a conviction or new evidence coming to light that directly implicates Ozawa in the scandal. The DPJ probably still holds the upper hand in a general election, but this may cut into its margin of victory. And the press, led by Sankei, is doing the best it can to keep this story in the news. (For those interested, Sankei has published two more parts in its ongoing exposé on Ozawa’s DPJ.) Shokun!, the conservative monthly that announced this week that it will be shutting down after its June issue, chipped in with a short piece discussing how Ozawa treats Japanese democracy with contempt by refusing to appear in the Diet.

What does seem clear is that this general election will be a peculiar election, in that it won’t be a single election. Unlike in the past, the most heated competition between the LDP and the DPJ as parties will be in rural districts where Ozawa and the party leadership has devoted the bulk of their attention. Meanwhile, in urban districts LDP and DPJ candidates will both be running against their parties, distancing themselves from Aso and Ozawa respectively and emphasizing their reformist credentials. Yomiuri quotes Nagashima Akihisa as telling his koenkai that he wants to believe that Ozawa is innocent, but he is prepared to reverse his judgment if new facts come to light. I am guessing that Nagashima is not alone among the DPJ’s urban candidates.

Thanks to Ozawa, the DPJ may not be able to take the support of urban voters for granted in the forthcoming election, which means that, interestingly, the biggest winners in the Ozawa scandal may be the LDP’s reformist candidates who not too long ago were despondent about their electoral prospects. They still have to distance themselves from their party, but now their DPJ rivals will have to work equally hard to distance themselves from Ozawa.

The election may come down to which party’s reformists can most distance themselves from their party’s leader.

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