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Japanese politics: Ozawa’s last stand?

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In Brief

‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ — Enoch Powell

Returning to his familiar role as Ozawa Ichirō's trusty factotum, former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio announced Thursday that he will be supporting Ozawa in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Kan Naoto in next month’s DPJ party leadership election.


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Ozawa himself has yet to make an official announcement, but much like when Hatoyama was DPJ secretary-general under Ozawa, Ozawa conveyed his intentions to Hatoyama, and Hatoyama revealed them to the public. Naturally Hatoyama’s backing Ozawa after earlier indicating his support for Kan is an insult to the prime minister.

I have held off from commenting on the possibility of an Ozawa run at the party leadership and premiership because the idea struck me as patently absurd (for reasons that Michael Cucek captured well here and here).

And yet here we are, with Ozawa on the brink of entering the ring once more. I suppose on the plus side, at least he’s competing for a public post, one that would force Ozawa to assume public responsibility instead of hiding out of sight.

There is no shortage of speculation about Ozawa’s motives for running, having to do with his tenuous legal position, his desire to reinsert himself into the policymaking process by running, losing, and then bargaining for an important post, or his genuine desire to, in Hatoyama’s words, ‘to risk his life on behalf of the country.’ I have long since given up trying to read Ozawa’s mind and am willing to believe that any, or all, or none of these reasons is the real reason for Ozawa’s decision.

Whatever his reasoning, the consequences could be dramatic. The best case scenario would be that Ozawa is simply unable to muster enough support and goes down to an embarrassing defeat that is a prelude to his departure from politics. It is unclear just how much support from the party’s parliamentary caucus Ozawa can count on — for my part, I have always thought that the media has exaggerated the extent to which Ozawa can rely on an ‘army’ of young MPs indebted to him for his assistance. Even more unknowable is the extent of Ozawa’s support among the party’s rank-and-file members, who will also be voting in the party election. Given the near-universal public disapproval (including DPJ supporters) of Ozawa, it is worth asking whether there are still enough pockets of support for the former party leader to make his candidacy viable.

And if he were, somehow, to defeat Kan and take the premiership? Many seem to think that Ozawa’s becoming DPJ leader would be the catalyst for the long-awaited political realignment (although Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi insists that the DPJ will break regardless of what Ozawa does). It is easy enough to see how Ozawa could trigger the realignment. Remember the ‘purge’ of Ozawa loyalists that marked the transition from Hatoyama to Kan? Presumably the ‘magistrates’ who opposed Ozawa and have occupied important positions under Kan would have little to look forward to under Ozawa, and would have two options outside of the cabinet: build anti-mainstream ‘factions’ within the DPJ to challenge Ozawa, thereby completing the LDP-isation of the DPJ, or leave the party altogether to join with Watanabe or form yet another new political party.

The reality is that while at another point in his career Ozawa might have been able to deliver a miracle, untwisting the Diet by encouraging members of other parties to defect or hammering out a new governing coalition, there is good reason to believe that Ozawa is out of miracles. As Kan has found as he has tried to coax the opposition parties to cooperate, with the DPJ reeling the opposition parties have the upper hand. The DPJ will pay a steeper price than the opposition parties for inaction, particularly as the economy worsens. Add Ozawa’s unpopularity and his notoriety as a living symbol of the bad, old politics and the opposition’s advantage grows. And if a Prime Minister Ozawa were the head of a nominally united but fractured DPJ his bargaining power would be undermined even further. Whoever wins the party election will still face a miserable political situation. Having Ozawa as prime minister would only make the DPJ’s situation even more difficult.

It is ultimately for that reason that I suspect that Ozawa will provide another demonstration of Enoch Powell’s maxim, adding a final defeat to a lengthy political career that has seen its share of defeats along with extraordinary victories, arguably none more extraordinary the DPJ’s victory a year ago next Monday. Ozawa simply does not have a compelling case for why he should take charge of the government at this juncture — and I think that the party’s voters know it.

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