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The space between Ozawa and the DPJ

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In Brief

The first round of polls following last week's arrest of Okubo Toshinori, Ozawa Ichiro's secretary, has been released, and not surprisingly there are few bright spots for Ozawa and the DPJ.

Oddly enough, the most favorable poll for Ozawa was the Sankei/Fuji News Network poll, which despite Sankei's having pulled out all stops to push for Ozawa to resign following the arrest found that 47.4% of respondents thought Ozawa should resign, compared with 41.4% who thought there was no reason for him to resign. The same poll did record a slight drop in support for the DPJ and a larger drop in the number of respondents who thought that Ozawa would be most appropriate as prime minister (although he still maintains a slight lead over Aso Taro).


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Other polls contain worse news for Ozawa. Asahi‘s poll found that 57% of respondents thought Ozawa should resign, compared to only 26% who supported his staying on as DPJ leader. But despite that, Ozawa still enjoyed a ten-point margin in response to the question of who would make the most appropriate prime minister, despite losing twelve points. Similarly, for 56% of respondents the scandal has not worsened their image of the DPJ, compared with 40% of respondents for whom it has.

Kyodo‘s poll — discussed in this Sankei article — found that 61% of respondents think Ozawa should go, but Kyodo too found that Ozawa still remains preferable to Aso, and, more significantly, that a DPJ-centered government remains preferable to an LDP-centered government.

Mainichi‘s poll noted a similar pattern, although 73% of respondents prefer neither Ozawa nor Aso as prime minister.

Meanwhile in all the polls the Aso cabinet’s remained abysmal, although some polls recorded a slight improvement.

There is actually good news for the DPJ in all of these polls, namely that the public appears to be able to separate the DPJ from its leader in a way that it can’t (or won’t) do for the the LDP and its leader. Perhaps, oddly enough, the DPJ is protected by the ubiquitous image of Ozawa as “old LDP.” Perhaps voters are able to separate “old LDP” Ozawa in their minds, chiding the DPJ for employing his services without assuming that the DPJ equals Ozawa. The gap may be temporary, particularly if the press keeps up its relentless campaign to force Ozawa out, but it does suggest that the DPJ could still be victorious with Ozawa at the helm. It might not be pretty — the young reformists will surely do everything in their power to distance themselves from Ozawa — but DPJ members may be able to inoculate themselves from their party leader in a way that LDP members wish they could. Little wonder, then, that the DPJ’s young turks are doing all they can to distance themselves from Ozawa. For example, Asao Keiichiro, shadow defense minister (and my former boss), said on TV Saturday that if it turns out that Ozawa knew about the Nishimatsu donations, “he’s out.” This is the same message delivered by Hatoyama Yukio on NHK Sunday, when he suggested that if new information comes to light, Ozawa’s resignation may be unavoidable.

This approach is sound: let reformist candidates distance themselves from Ozawa, dampen overt talk about who should replace him (potential successors like Okada Katsuya have been quiet through the scandal), and if Ozawa ultimately has no choice but to step down, minimize the collateral damage to DPJ candidates and hope for an orderly transition. In the meantime, let Ozawa do what he does best: visit with candidates in places where voters will be more indifferent to the cloud of scandal trailing Ozawa. It is far from the ideal of a two-party system with two centralized, top-down parties with strong leaders and clear policy agendas vying for majorities, but there is little in Japanese politics that resembles the ideal.

The DPJ is still in an enviable position for an opposition party within months of a general election. The LDP is utterly incapable of exploiting Ozawa’s troubles, weighed down by the albatross that is Prime Minister Aso. Sankei reports that Koike Yuriko is ramping up efforts in a bid to replace Aso in advance of a general election, which I suspect may be more wishful thinking on the part of Sankei than evidence of a serious campaign on Koike’s part. Does she really want to take the helm of the party now, in the face of certain defeat? It seems more likely to me that she is positioning herself to be the inevitable leader in the aftermath of the general election, when a broken LDP might be willing to countenance an unconventional leader like Koike. But now? I still have a hard time seeing Aso step down willingly before a general election, and despite the desperation of LDP leaders I think Koike will have a hard time convincing them that she is the answer to their problems.

There may yet be more bad news to come for Ozawa and the DPJ, but if nothing more is forthcoming — if the media is starved of innuendo with which to pressure Ozawa — than the DPJ may be able to contain the damage and press forward. This is far from the best of scenarios, but in campaigning or in governing the DPJ may be unable to do better than Ozawa.

Change you can believe in? Far from it. But a DPJ government — even under Ozawa — would still be a step in the right direction.

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