Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda again put his political life on the line on May 8, when Diet deliberations finally started on legislation to raise the consumption tax rate.
But on the same day, the Standing Officers Council of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan decided to restore party privileges to political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, effective May 10, a development that may well lead to a shorter political life for the prime minister.
Ozawa leads the largest intraparty group in the DPJ and he has made clear his opposition to raising the consumption tax rate.
Lawyers serving as prosecutors on May 9 appealed the Tokyo District Court’s acquittal of Ozawa on April 26 on charges of falsifying political fund reports. But this will not affect the restoration of Ozawa's party privileges.
His privileges were revoked last year on condition they would be restored only after a verdict in his case had been finalized.
Some DPJ executives, including Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi, have been pushing for the immediate restoration of Ozawa’s party privileges since the acquittal to prevent a breakup of the ruling party.
However, other DPJ members felt a condition should be placed on restoring Ozawa's party privileges, namely, that he come out in favor of the consumption tax hike legislation. In fact, during a recent visit to the United States, Noda told reporters that all DPJ members should support the party policy decision to raise the consumption tax rate from the current 5 percent to 10 percent by October 2015.
But when Koshiishi met with Noda on May 7 and said he wanted to restore Ozawa's party privileges immediately and unconditionally, Noda did not object.
Given his weakening position within the DPJ and the plunging support rates for his Cabinet, the prime minister must rely on Koshiishi to keep the ruling party together.
When Koshiishi informed Ozawa of the party's decision to restore his privileges over the phone on May 8, Ozawa said, "Thank you very much." Ozawa spent all day at home.
Noda has also increased friction within the party by pushing for an early restart of two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture and pursuing Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement.
With Ozawa and his group expected to maintain their opposition to the consumption tax hike proposal, the only road left for Noda in passing the legislation is to obtain the cooperation of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
On May 8, Noda said in the Diet that all parties should bring together their proposals on the consumption tax for frank discussions.
However, the opposition parties are insisting that Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka and Takeshi Maeda, the land minister, step down before they can cooperate with the government. The opposition-controlled Upper House has passed censure motions against those two ministers.
One factor preventing Noda from simply dismissing those two ministers is the fact they both are Upper House members like Koshiishi. On May 7, Koshiishi said there was no need for Noda to reshuffle his Cabinet.
Noda also said in the Diet that he wanted the two ministers to fulfill their responsibilities.
With the current Diet session scheduled to end on June 21, Noda will have to extend the session for any chance of passing the legislation. But such a move will likely be opposed by Koshiishi, who wants to avoid bringing the consumption tax hike legislation to a Diet vote that could tear apart the DPJ.
Although the prospects of passing the consumption tax hike legislation are not particularly bright for Noda, Ozawa also faces a number of his own problems as he attempts to regain his position as an influential politician.
Once his party privileges are restored, Ozawa will not only be able to vote in the DPJ presidential election set for September, but he could also run in that election.
As DPJ president, Ozawa could further help members of his intraparty group, many of whom are young lawmakers without an established political base.
If he became DPJ president again, Ozawa would have control over which candidates are officially endorsed by the DPJ as well as how campaign funds are distributed.
Lawmakers close to Ozawa began signing up voters as DPJ members and supporters, who could influence the outcome of the DPJ presidential election. But with a May 31 deadline for signing up new members, there was no time to lose in rounding up possible votes for Ozawa.
Between 50 and 60 members of Ozawa's intraparty group are likely to vote against the consumption tax hike legislation, meaning it could be defeated in the Lower House if the LDP and New Komeito also vote against it.
One problem for Ozawa's group is if Diet deliberations proceed smoothly. If sufficient time is given to the debate, a vote in the current Diet session could become a reality.
If Ozawa group members were to vote against the legislation, they would likely be expelled from the party, ruining Ozawa's strategy of winning the DPJ presidency.
An even bigger danger for Ozawa and his group is if Noda were to concede to the LDP proposal and have the main opposition party support the legislation to raise the consumption tax rate. Such a development would leave Ozawa's group isolated.
"It would be disastrous if the prime minister teamed up with the LDP to pass the legislation and then dissolve the Lower House," a younger member of Ozawa's group said.
Public opinion toward Ozawa is also not favorable. Although he was acquitted, three of his former aides have been found guilty of falsifying political fund reports for Ozawa's political fund management organization.
Moreover, Ozawa will once again find himself a defendant in a higher court, which could hamper his ability to fulfill an important political role in the party.
Some within his group say Ozawa is the only candidate in the DPJ presidential election who can bring together all group members. Others, however, say Ozawa should not run unless he is absolutely certain of winning.
Ozawa has supported other candidates in past DPJ presidential elections, but they have all been defeated. There is also no obvious individual who could obtain the same level of support from Ozawa's group as Ozawa himself.
Even if such an individual were to run, that lawmaker could not avoid criticism of being a puppet leader.
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