Ichiro Ozawa's health was improving on Oct. 7, but ruling party sources said the same cannot be said about his chances for a political comeback, regardless of the verdict in his trial.
The former Democratic Party of Japan president was admitted to a Tokyo hospital late on Oct. 6 after complaining of abdominal pain. The following day, his doctors said he was suffering from bladder stones, but his condition was getting better.
They also said it was too early to determine whether the next hearing in his trial at the Tokyo District Court could be held as scheduled on Oct. 14.
Hours before he was taken to the hospital, Ozawa pleaded not guilty to conspiring to falsify political fund reports. He also continued his tirade against prosecutors and the courts that started when three of his former aides were found guilty of falsifying those reports.
Although Ozawa has vowed to prove his innocence in court, the kingpin has become more isolated within the DPJ since the decision was handed down in January to forcibly indict him.
His only comments to those outside of his circle of political allies have been to gatherings of his supporters or through the Internet.
Political insiders have said that Ozawa's plan is to make a major play to reassert his influence within the DPJ after he is found not guilty at the end of his criminal trial. But the guilty verdicts against his three former aides will leave the hint of scandal near him even if he himself is exonerated.
"Even if the verdicts are overturned on appeal, the lower court guilty ruling will still have a grave meaning," a younger DPJ lawmaker said.
In an attempt to move out of the increasingly narrow corner he is being forced into, Ozawa and his close allies have begun searching for an individual who could eventually take over control of his party group, the largest in the DPJ. Members feel that group unity cannot be maintained unless a clear successor is in place.
In addition, Ozawa has been on the losing side of the past three DPJ presidential elections.
A close Ozawa ally said, "One weak point of the Ozawa group is the lack of a successor."
Three lawmakers are being considered as potential heirs to the Ozawa group.
One is Kazuhiro Haraguchi, the former internal affairs minister. Banri Kaieda, the former economy minister who lost to Yoshihiko Noda in the August DPJ presidential election despite receiving the support of the Ozawa group, is the second alternative. The third potential successor is Sumio Mabuchi, the former transport minister who also ran in the DPJ presidential election.
But none of the three have so far gained enough support to be able to lead the entire group.
Some Ozawa allies also feel that if a potential successor should raise his profile, it would spell the end of the Ozawa era, much like what happened to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, after his subordinates formed their own faction in the Liberal Democratic Party.
The Noda administration, meanwhile, is remaining silent on Ozawa's trial on the grounds that the matter should be settled by the courts.
Since becoming prime minister, Noda has made strenuous efforts to erase the internal party friction that had been stirred up by Naoto Kan, Noda's predecessor, when he tried to distance his government from Ozawa.
Having appointed a number of Ozawa associates to important Cabinet and party posts, Noda has sought to strengthen party unity. Those efforts would be hurt if the Noda administration were to openly criticize Ozawa over his court case.
There are also signs that Noda is trying to push through policy measures that may not have complete party consensus while Ozawa is hampered from acting aggressively on the political front because of his court case.
A case in point is the tax hike proposal recently approved by the DPJ to help pay for the rebuilding effort after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Ozawa has sharply opposed such tax hikes. But the Ozawa group did not put up quite the same fight over the recent tax hike proposal as it did in June, when the Kan administration tried to combine an increase in the consumption tax rate with a proposal for the simultaneous reform of the social security system.
Over the next few months, the Noda administration will have to make such difficult decisions as whether to participate in negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement as well as compile the legislation needed to raise taxes for the Tohoku rebuilding effort.
Those decisions would be made easier if there is less internal party discord.
At the same time, party unity alone will not be the answer since the opposition parties have made it clear that the Ozawa money scandal should be addressed in the Diet. They will use the Ozawa issue to criticize the Noda government.
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