The ruling party's days are clearly numbered after political fixer Ichiro Ozawa decided to act on his threat to quit over tax policy and form a new party with 50 or so loyalists.
Ozawa, a former president of the Democratic Party of Japan, has been sparring for months over the Noda administration's unpopular plan to raise the consumption tax rate as part of efforts to reform taxation and social security systems.
The breakup of the DPJ is now almost unavoidable. As for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has staked his credibility on being able to get the tax legislation passed by the Diet, his future is grim, too.
Ozawa said he and his followers will stick around to vote against tax bills--thereby plunging the party into turmoil--and then move on.
He says the proposed legislation amounts to an act of betrayal to the public because it goes against the manifesto the party put together to win power in the first place.
As head of the largest faction in the DPJ, Ozawa has enough clout to draw other discontented party members to his cause.
All it will take for the DPJ to lose its majority in the Lower House is for 54 members to bolt.
A number of lawmakers who have taken issue with Noda over tax policy have indicated they are prepared to follow Ozawa's lead.
If that happens, the DPJ will not be able to propose even budget legislation or bills to bind Japan to treaties it has signed, unless opposition parties agree to cooperate.
But that would be putting the cart before the horse.
As a first order of business, the opposition camp will simply approve a no-confidence motion against the Noda Cabinet.
That would spell political defeat for Noda. It would throw his administration into deadlock, rendering it unable to govern.
Ozawa made his move on the evening of June 21. He called a meeting of his supporters at a Tokyo hotel to explain his strategy.
He told the 50 or so lawmakers gathered to follow his lead when he votes against bills to raise the consumption tax rate. The voting is expected to take place June 26.
"Voting on this issue is fast approaching," he told them. "I want each of you to think as politicians about what you should do to realize the policies you advocated in the previous Lower House election (in 2009) that brought about the change of government."
Ozawa said he expected the Lower House to be dissolved as early as August with a snap election held the following month.
"We have to think about strategies for that election," he said, clearly inferring that he intended to form a new political party.
Afterward, he had one-on-one meetings with each of the 50 lawmakers in another hotel room.
"I'm asking you to work with me," Ozawa said each time. He then got each person to pledge in writing to leave the party.
Ozawa and his followers plan to submit the pledges to the DPJ leadership after the voting on the consumption tax issue.
Ozawa, who said earlier he doesn't give a hoot about disciplinary measures that could be meted out by the party, made clear he and his followers intended to bolt before the DPJ could act.
Kenji Yamaoka, a former DPJ vice president who attended the meeting, told reporters: "We intend to fulfill our responsibility to the people. We must not lose sight of our beliefs."
That same evening, about 10 Upper House lawmakers who are loyal to Ozawa met at a hotel in Tokyo to consider their options.
They also plan to submit written pledges to the DPJ leadership at the same time that Ozawa does.
"We will form a new political party as early as July," said a close aide to Ozawa.
The new party will align itself with the tiny Kizuna Party, with just nine members who remain close to Ozawa after bolting from the ruling party in January.
If this parliamentary group can even muster 51 members, it will be able to submit a no-confidence motion against the Noda Cabinet.
Even though Ozawa has now thrown his cards on the table, the DPJ leadership still seems to believe it can persuade him to pull back.
"He (Ozawa) is one of the top members who created the (current) DPJ. We can work together," Azuma Koshiishi, the party's secretary-general, told reporters June 21.
Seiji Maehara, chairman of the DPJ’s Policy Research Committee, also said in a news conference, "Right up until the voting, I will make every effort to get Ozawa and his followers to vote for the tax increase bills. It is my hope that all DPJ Lower House lawmakers will take a unified stand on this issue."
Someone who is close to Noda said: "Since the prime minister has made clear he is prepared to stake his political life on the consumption tax rate hike, he has already accepted that the party may well indeed break apart. We don't care if Ozawa and his group leave our party."
Having staged outright rebellion on the issue, Ozawa now intends to make opposition to the tax increase a key plank in his new party's manifesto when it fights the next Lower House election.
Rather than hang around and block passage of the bills through the Diet, Ozawa told a lawmaker close to him: "We will be able to fight the next Lower House election with policies against the tax increase and nuclear power. This is a winning combination for the election."
Ozawa will not seek an important post in the new party as he is still a defendant in a criminal trial on political funds.
On the evening of June 20, lawmakers close to Ozawa huddled with former internal affairs minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi and former foreign minister Makiko Tanaka in an effort to lure big name politicians to the new party. That strategy has not yet borne fruit, however.
Nor has Ozawa succeeded in forging a good relationship with popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.
An Upper House lawmaker, who has no plans to leave the DPJ, said, "Even if I left the party with Ozawa, who is not that popular with the public, I don't think his prospects are all that good."
The prime minister's office is not oblivious to a growing sense of crisis over Ozawa's tactics.
Staff members and lawmakers close to Noda are asking lawmakers, especially those with conflicting loyalties to both Noda and Ozawa, not to side with Ozawa.
"We are asking the lawmakers so that those who are unwillingly supporting the consumption tax increase bills will not abstain from the voting or those who plan to abstain from the voting will not vote against the bills," said an aide.
Noda himself is hitting the phone, making calls to middle-ranking and young lawmakers.
Noda has also asked his predecessor, Naoto Kan, to pitch in.
Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada even approached Kan's predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, late June 21 and asked him not to side with Ozawa.
"You are one of the founders of the DPJ," Okada reminded Hatoyama.
Afterward, Hatoyama met reporters and said he had no immediate plans to join Ozawa's crusade to create a new political party.
However, he would not be drawn on how he intends to vote on the tax bills.
"I fought (in the 2009 Lower House election) with a manifesto that did not say the DPJ will raise consumption tax rate. I am responsible (for the manifesto)."
With the prospect of intense political maneuvering in days to come, the DPJ offered its main rival, the Liberal Democratic Party, its schedule leading up to the voting on the consumption tax increase bills in the Lower House.
According to the schedule, exhaustive deliberations will be held in a meeting of the special committee on the bills on June 25 with Noda attending, followed by a last question-and-answer session and voting on June 26.
The LDP made clear it will not object to the schedule.
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