Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s attempt to lay down the law in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has infuriated opponents of his proposed tax hike and fueled fears the party will split apart.
When Noda was in Washington for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama mainly to discuss security issues, the Japanese prime minister managed to send a warning to former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa in the escalating feud over the consumption tax.
"Anyone who is a member of the party must follow policy decided by the party," Noda told reporters on April 30.
Noda was referring to the DPJ’s approval of his proposal to double the consumption tax rate to 10 percent by 2015, a plan vehemently opposed by Ozawa.
The Tokyo District Court on April 26 found Ozawa not guilty of falsifying political fund reports, leading to expectations that Ozawa will step up his opposition to Noda’s tax plan.
Noda may have been attempting to fire an early shot in the battle, but his words did little to bring the tax opponents to his side. In fact, they responded by going on the offensive themselves.
One DPJ lawmaker close to Ozawa said there is no actual DPJ policy to raise the tax rate because party executives were the only ones who decided to submit legislation for the tax increase.
DPJ executives have cut off debate on the tax hike proposal within a party committee, where strong resistance had been put up by those allied with Ozawa.
Another younger lawmaker belonging to the intraparty group led by Ozawa, the largest in the ruling party, said: "The prime minister may have been trying to catch Ozawa off guard, but this is a matter that requires Noda to meet directly with Ozawa. With Ozawa's party privileges not even restored yet, Noda appears to be taking the fight to Ozawa."
The DPJ's Standing Officers Council is expected to discuss on May 8 whether to restore Ozawa's party privileges, which were stripped when he was indicted in the fund report scandal.
DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi has been calling for a restoration of the privileges for his ally, telling one council member: "The party must stand united from now. I ask for your cooperation."
However, one council member who was also lobbied told a close associate, "If Ozawa is to return to the party, he has to abide by the decisions made by the party."
Some Cabinet ministers have even said that as a precondition for restoring his party privileges, Ozawa should be asked to come out in favor of the legislation to raise the consumption tax rate.
Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Ozawa's party privileges should be restored regardless of his position on the tax issue.
"With public trust in the administration in a difficult state, Ozawa is absolutely necessary aside from his stance on policy," Hatoyama told reporters in Iwate Prefecture on May 1.
Sadakazu Tanigaki, president of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, has been trying to use the tax issue to force Noda into dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election.
When asked about the confrontation within the DPJ, Tanigaki said, "While I do not want to get into details about other parties, it is only natural for Prime Minister Noda to firmly control the situation within his own party."
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