A new Ozawa party for Japan?

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra

Ichiro Ozawa’s trial verdict of ‘not-guilty’ for violating the Political Funds Control Law has now been appealed, placing constraints on his political activities.

Fortunately for him, the DPJ executive, under the leadership of key Ozawa ally, Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi, had already restored his membership and the executive is not intending to revisit their decision. Koshiishi has three basic principles for party management: ‘Do not split the party’, ‘Do not fight with the supporting organisation Rengō’, and ‘Do not fight with Ozawa’.

The appeal makes it politically difficult for Ozawa to run as a candidate in the DPJ leadership election this coming September or to become the official leader of a new party. This is significant because last December Ozawa established a political grouping that looks suspiciously like a new party even though it is not yet registered as such. It is called the ‘New Policy Research Group’ (Atarashii Seisaku Kenkyūkai, or Shinseiken).

Several clues suggest that it is a new Ozawa party in the making. Firstly, its website is totally focussed on Ozawa and makes no mention of the DPJ, although it has taken the DPJ’s 2009 electioneering slogan — ‘putting the people’s lives first’ — as its own. Secondly, it outlines a clear policy ‘vision’ (presented as three issues and eight themes). Thirdly, it has an organisational structure modelled along political party lines, including Ozawa as chairman. Its policies are heavily weighted in favour of increasing government spending on social welfare and economic stimulus measures, promoting fiscal and administrative decentralisation, and preventing any consumption tax increase.

In terms of its membership, Shinseiken is principally a ‘party’ of the Ozawa faction in the DPJ. It was formed as a study group of the faction’s main sub-groups in the Lower House — Isshinkai and Hokushinkai — and his Upper House group. The de facto ‘new party within a party’ was designed to head off moves by many in Ozawa’s faction to leave the DPJ and to hedge his bets when facing an uncertain political future. The grouping is multi-purpose: it is a ‘party-in-waiting’ should Ozawa want to leave the DPJ or should he be expelled. In the meantime, it binds his followers more closely to him and can be used as an instrument of his personal power against the Noda administration. These are important considerations for Ozawa given the appeal of his ‘not-guilty’ verdict. For example, if Ozawa votes against the Noda administration’s integrated consumption tax and social security reform bills, he risks expulsion from the DPJ along with any of his supporters who follow his example.

Shinseiken’s 106 members are made up of 95 Ozawa-led DPJ rebels in addition to 11 DPJ defectors who now belong to other minor parties — the Kizuna Party, New Party Mother Earth/Real DPJ, and Tax Cuts Japan led by Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura. Shinseiken thus provides a way for Ozawa to retain the allegiance of those who have defected from the DPJ and with likely future party allies. It is possible that ex-leader of the People’s New Party Shizuka Kamei will throw his lot in with Shinseiken. Ozawa and former Prime Minister Hatoyama also agreed to form a strong partnership between Shinseiken and the Hatoyama group in the DPJ.

One of Shinseiken’s members from New Party Mother Earth/Real DPJ is Tomohiro Ishikawa, Ozawa’s former secretary who received a two-year suspended sentence last September for cooking the books of Ozawa’s political fund management organisation, Rikuzankai. Another from the same party is Kenko Matsuki, the only DPJ politician who voted for last June’s no-confidence motion in the Kan Cabinet.

Many of Shinseiken’s executives are also key politicians who made life extremely difficult for former Prime Minister Kan, and now for Prime Minister Noda. For example, the new grouping’s secretary-general is Shozo Azuma, one of the five pro-Ozawa DPJ Diet members holding sub-cabinet positions in the Kan administration who resigned just before the no-confidence motion in order to put additional pressure on Kan. One of two so-called ‘observers’ of Shinseiken is Hiroshi Kawauchi, perhaps the most vocal challenger of Noda’s consumption tax hike proposal from within the Ozawa group. Shinseiken’s advisers include Kenji Yamaoka, whom Noda reshuffled out of his cabinet in January and former Hatoyama Cabinet Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi who aspires to be prime minister with Ozawa’s support.

Ozawa’s followers within the DPJ who belong to Shinseiken will be highly unlikely to receive DPJ endorsement in the next election and, even if they did, will be highly unlikely to win. The majority were swept into the Diet as Ozawa ‘children’ on the great waves of support for the DPJ in the 2007 and 2009 elections, and will be just as easily swept out. It is not surprising, therefore, that they are preparing the ground for mass defection from the DPJ to improve their electoral prospects. With more than five members, the new party will be eligible for government subsidies, which Ozawa will control whoever is leader. With its populist slogan and policy package, Shinseiken’s members are no doubt hoping that it might do quite well in the election, particularly if it can capitalise on voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties. According to public opinion polls, 52 per cent of the Japanese electorate are floating voters in search of a new home.

Shinseiken is symptomatic of a more general trend towards party proliferation in Japan. When the LDP was imploding in 2008–09 it began shedding members who formed new parties, hoping to improve their electoral prospects. The same phenomenon is now affecting the DPJ. The mixed electoral systems in both Houses, while encouraging party consolidation through single-member districts, also facilitate party fragmentation through the proportional representation districts. So there are two major parties plus an increasing number of third or minor parties (at least a dozen) and the possibility of two more from regional Japan — the Hashimoto and Kawamura parties. If Ozawa could link up with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s new Osaka Restoration Association (Osaka Ishin no Kai) it would be a great coup. They share a desire to decentralise power to the regions.

Ozawa has kept his door wide open for overtures from Hashimoto who went to Tokyo immediately after his successful election in November last year. The first place he visited was Ozawa’s office where he held open the prospect of possibly aligning with the Ozawa group in Eastern Japan. The members of Ozawa’s group were entranced by this prospect, wanting to leave the DPJ as soon as possible. Ozawa then cast amorous glances at Hashimoto at a political fund-raising party held on 5 March in Osaka and has repeatedly praised Hashimoto saying, ‘a 65 per cent support rate for the Restoration, that’s impressive. The contents of their policies have nothing to do with it. Saying that [he will] take responsibility and make decisions in politics is enough for the people’.

Ozawa’s comments reflect a view that places top priority on seizing power and on exercising political leadership rather than on policies, which are merely tools for political action, for winning elections, for gaining personal political advantage and for implementing party realignment plans. Ozawa now has a ‘new party card’ to play in this game.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.