The man who would be PM

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2007, 12:00am

Rarely has the old cliche about a week being a long time in politics been more appropriate. In the space of seven days, the Democratic Party of Japan's president has gone from being a near certainty for prime minister after the next general election to the subject of speculation over whether a man who has a habit of causing his political parties to implode is fit for top office.

The DPJ will still put up a good fight against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) when Japan votes, which some are predicting could happen as early as April, but that is despite Ichiro Ozawa, 65, rather than thanks to him.

On Wednesday, Mr Ozawa held talks with members of the party and reversed his announcement on Sunday that he would resign from the leadership and return to the back benches. That decision came after he held secret discussions with the LDP to form a 'grand coalition' to run the country, which DPJ members vetoed as soon as it was revealed to them on Friday last week.

As part of the plan, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda had agreed to appoint Mr Ozawa deputy prime minister and the DPJ would have had six of the 18 cabinet seats.

But with the LDP wrestling with declining public support, Mr Fukuda trying to put the brief, disastrous tenure of prime minister Shinzo Abe behind him and calling the shots in the Diet, why did Mr Ozawa not simply bide his time and wait for power to inevitably come to him?

'He explained that the DPJ needed experience in running ministries and the government, but I don't think anyone really believes that was a valid reason for holding secret talks with your main political opponents about an alliance,' said Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in media and politics at Hokkaido University.

'He was impatient and he has damaged his credibility by not consulting with the rest of his party, although from past experience it is clear that negotiating behind the scenes is often his style of politics.'

The Yomiuri newspaper, a firm supporter of the LDP, has been predictably critical of Mr Ozawa's actions and for the confusion he has caused in Japan's political world, labelling the affair a 'flip-flop drama' that has underlined the party's political immaturity and shown him to be untrustworthy.

The Yomiuri may be a partisan publication, but few question its editorials this time around.

And its opinions are backed by the career history of a man who is known as 'The Destroyer' in Japanese political circles.

The son of a businessman from Iwate prefecture who went into politics and served in the House of Representatives, Mr Ozawa studied economics at prestigious Keio University.

He was first elected to the Diet in 1969 as a member of the LDP, and with the patronage of prime minister Kakuei Tanaka's faction, rose quickly within its ranks. Appointed home affairs minister in 1985, he impressed many in the party with his tenacity and persuasive skills, although those same attributes also won him enemies, in particular Ryutaro Hashimoto, who went on to be prime minister.

Promoted to party secretary general in 1989, he nevertheless realised his close alliance with kingmaker Shin Kanemaru would expose him to criticism when Kanemau was linked to a corruption scandal in 1992. His response was to team up with Tsutomu Hata, resign from the LDP and set up the Japan Renewal Party.

The LDP was so destabilised by the number of its lawmakers who joined Mr Ozawa's new party that the maverick politician is credited with being the catalyst for the LDP losing power for the first and only time since the end of the second world war.

Mr Ozawa's approach to politics and policies caused problems for his coalition with smaller parties. For left-wing parties in particular, his insistence that Japan should carry out radical legal and military reforms that would give it the status of a 'normal nation' was an anathema.

In 1993, he wrote Blueprint for a New Japan, which detailed his belief that the country should shrug off the shackles of pacifism imposed at the end of the war and have a military capability that matched its economic might.

The Japan Socialist Party withdrew from the coalition and joined the LDP, leaving a minority government that collapsed in June 1994. About this time, disparate opposition parties banded together again under the banner of the New Frontier Party, of which Mr Ozawa managed to gain control after a fierce fight with founder and former prime minister Toshiki Kaifu. Within four years, Mr Ozawa's autocratic leadership style alienated almost all of his erstwhile supporters and he was forced to dissolve the New Frontier Party.

Pinning his political future next on the Liberal Party, his presence there scuppered a deal to integrate it back into the LDP. Finally, in 2003, he was able to join with the DPJ and was elected party head in April.

'He has successfully split up every party that he has either joined or set up,' said Steven Reed, a professor of politics at Chuo University. 'After the DPJ did so well in the upper house elections last year, I predicted that they would win the next general election, and Mr Ozawa has just thrown that advantage away.

'He has this habit of running off and doing things on his own, and that can be dangerous.'

Yet Professor Reed does not rule out the possibility of the DPJ ousting the LDP in the next polls, although Mr Ozawa has certainly made that more difficult.

'If they can maintain their unity and don't do anything stupid again, then yes, they can still do well,' he said. 'The party that wins the next election will be the one that has shot itself in the foot less often.'

Mr Ozawa used the announcement that he had been convinced to stay on as party leader to try to clear up lingering confusion.

Describing himself as a 'poor communicator', Mr Ozawa admitted that he should have given his party more details of his discussions on a grand coalition and said his attention was now focused solely on his own party.

'I am resolved to stake my political life on the next election for the lower house,' he told the party faithful. 'I intend to give my all and devote all my efforts to winning the next election.'

The support Mr Ozawa is receiving from a party apparently relieved to have him back in charge is perhaps more indicative of the lack of other leadership talent than a resounding endorsement of his actions, Professor Watanabe said, although in the short term it is likely to go some way towards reuniting a party that has always been more of a loose affiliation of political beliefs.

'He's not transparent in his political actions, and that's not good because it leaves questions hanging over him,' Professor Watanabe said. 'He needs to learn that he must talk to his colleagues before performing a new trick. On the other hand, the DPJ also needs his technical skills.'

With the possibility of a grand coalition gone and the DPJ committed to going it alone in its quest for power, it is virtually inconceivable that Mr Ozawa will again try to court the LDP

But with this particular politician, one never really knows what will happen next.