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[Kwan Weng Kin Ozawa pulls the strings as Japan’s P.M. muddles along

Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa describes himself as a mere ippeisotsu (foot soldier) in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), giving the innocuous term a whole new meaning.

For despite what he claims, Ozawa is undoubtedly the most powerful politician in Japan today.

No other politician in the country attracts as much attention or controversy ― not even Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Even though Ozawa holds no party posts, Kan and the entire party leadership defer to him.

That politics in Japan revolves around Ozawa, rather than the prime minister, speaks volumes about the dismal state of affairs in this country.

The unabated obsession with Ozawa has certainly not served Japan well. In January 2010, three of Ozawa’s aides were arrested on alleged political funds violations. Even though public prosecutors found no evidence to convict Ozawa himself on related charges, the opposition Liberal Democrats have been trying to embarrass Kan’s government by demanding that Ozawa answer questions about his political fund management in parliament.

After Kan’s DPJ lost control of the Upper House in July to the opposition, the latter pushed even harder for Ozawa to appear in parliament, failing which the opposition has threatened to boycott parliamentary deliberations.

In the meantime, problems have continued to pile up, not the least of which is how to pump more life into the still sputtering Japanese economy.

It is hard to believe that it was only in August 2009 that Ozawa had single-handedly engineered the DPJ’s landslide victory in the general election, allowing it to oust the Liberal Democrats from over five decades of almost continuous rule.

But Kan and his men appear to have forgotten Ozawa’s contribution to the party and have for weeks been desperately seeking to get him to agree to give testimony in parliament so as to appease the opposition.

On Tuesday, Ozawa finally decided ― no doubt after some hard-nosed political calculations ― that it was unwise to hold out any longer, and agreed to appear before the Lower House political ethics committee to explain himself.

But this was on the understanding that his appearance will help move parliamentary deliberations on the budget along.

The concession by Ozawa hardly brings an end to the political standoff since the opposition wants him to give sworn testimony, rather than appear at the ethics panel.

Nor will it shift the political focus away from Ozawa.

At a time when Japanese voters are increasingly frustrated with Kan’s leadership, pushing his popular support to less than 25 percent, and many in the country are looking anxiously around for a replacement leader, Ozawa remains a potential to fill the premier’s seat.

He draws both immense respect from his supporters and elicits considerable fear from his rivals.

And no wonder, for Ozawa is arguably the only political leader in Japan today who is able to articulate a bold, long-term vision for the country and who also has the breadth of political experience to be able to expound effectively on both domestic and external fronts.

Though often portrayed as brooding and grumpy by television cameras, he also exudes a gravitas seen in few other Japanese politicians.

Ozawa’s recent hints about wanting to return to the forefront of Japanese politics no doubt keep his rivals awake at night. His diehard supporters believe ― and with good reason ― that his departure, or forced removal, from Japanese politics would only be Japan’s loss.

In contrast, Kan has been a disappointment since coming to office in June. The once immensely popular health minister appears to have lost his fighting spirit.

In addition to ‘Irritable Kan,’ a reference to his bad temper, he is also irreverently labeled the ‘Quiet Kan,’ for keeping silent when expected to say something, or ‘Sleepy Kan,’ for dozing off in parliament.

His attempts to lower the corporate tax rate, increase monthly allowances for children and other policies have not gone down well with most of the electorate, thanks to a largely unsympathetic media.

On the other hand, his administration’s blemishes, such as its poor handling of relations with China over a marine collision near islands claimed by both countries, have been routinely highlighted, costing Kan valuable points.

There is no indication, however, that he might be replaced any time soon, though many in his party no doubt believe his continued leadership can only be a liability in future national elections.

The continued fuss over Ozawa, however, clouds the real problem that Kan faces ― the opposition-controlled Upper House is able to hold up most government Bills, save the budget.

To get around this problem, Kan needs a two-thirds majority in the Lower House to pass bills rejected by the Upper House.

Smaller parties ― the most recent being the Sunrise Party of Japan ― have rejected Kan’s overtures to beef up the ruling coalition’s numbers in the Lower House.

Kan, however, can take a leaf from United States President Barack Obama ― reach a major compromise with the Liberal Democrats over an issue dear to them, such as fiscal reconstruction, so as to get the country’s largest opposition group to support him on other key legislation.

In September 2011, the DPJ will reach its mid-term point, assuming the next general election is not held until the summer of 2013.

As the influential Asahi Shimbun daily editorialized: “In both domestic and external affairs, Japanese politics cannot afford to waste any more time.”

Just muddling through in the hope that things will somehow work out is hardly a realistic option for Kan.

By Kwan Weng Kin

(The Straits Times)
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