Few political insiders expect progress in next week’s meeting between Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa, but they agree the consequences could be enormous: the potential disintegration of the ruling party.
"It will be an important meeting and every effort should be made to avoid a breakup," a young lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Japan said.
Noda will enter the meeting firm in his stance that Ozawa should provide unconditional support for legislation on raising the consumption tax rate.
But Ozawa, who has publicly repeated that he opposes the tax hike, wants Noda to delay a vote on the legislation in the current Diet session, which would increase criticism from opposition parties against the prime minister and could spell the end of his administration.
At a time when politics are at a standstill and the public is growing uneasy about a lack of leadership from Nagatacho, the stakes of the meeting are particularly high.
The prime minister has said he would put his political life on the line on passing the legislation. It may come down to that.
One official in the prime minister's office said Ozawa could make major demands in exchange for supporting the tax-hike legislation, including having Noda promise to give Ozawa an important post and to not seek re-election as DPJ president in autumn.
Ozawa has previously held one-on-one sessions with prime ministers to maneuver the political agenda in his direction. That history has led one Noda associate to say, "We do not know what the prime minister is seeking to gain through the meeting."
Others close to Noda suggest that the prime minister knows full well that Ozawa will not bend, but that any acrimonious end to their meeting would only be a disadvantage for Ozawa. If the talks fail, Noda could simply say he made his best effort to win over Ozawa but must now resort to seeking the cooperation of opposition parties on passing the tax-hike bill.
In two meetings with DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi, who arranged next week's meeting, Ozawa said the DPJ's campaign manifesto compiled in 2009 would have to be followed. That manifesto made no mention of hiking the consumption tax rate.
With Ozawa’s case of suspected falsification of political fund reports heading to the Tokyo High Court, he has used opposition to the consumption tax proposal to heighten solidarity within his intraparty group, the largest within the DPJ.
Under such circumstances, a DPJ source who knows Ozawa well said the only way the former DPJ president would agree to support the tax legislation is if Noda promised to step down.
For his part, Ozawa knows the possibility is very slim for Noda to delay a vote on the consumption tax legislation.
A major reason Ozawa agreed to meet with Noda is to save face for Koshiishi, who also played a leading role in restoring Ozawa's party privileges after he was acquitted by the Tokyo District Court in the political fund scandal.
"There will be no progress. It will only be a ceremony," one ally of Ozawa said about the meeting.
Koshiishi has expended huge amounts of time and energy to hold the Noda-Ozawa meeting because he feels it is necessary to keep the DPJ together. If Koshiishi fails to prevent a decisive break between Noda and Ozawa, he would likely come under fire for arranging the meeting in the first place.
For that reason, Koshiishi has stated his intention to sit in on the Noda-Ozawa meeting to ensure it does not get out of control.
Many within the DPJ do not want the party to split apart as a result of the meeting.
A veteran Upper House member has told Noda, "Rather than try to end it with one session, you should hold a number of meetings with him."
An ally to Ozawa who has served as a Cabinet minister said, "There may be an effort to find a proposal on which the two could agree."
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