Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ichiro Ozawa Confronted by Two Potential Indictments

It appears to be all but inevitable that Takeshi Okubo, Ichiro Ozawa’s top aide-de-camp, will be indicted no later than March 24 for violations of the Political Finances Regulation Act, which forbids individual politicians and their political aides from accepting political funds from corporations under pain of criminal prosecution. There are questions regarding the interpretation of facts and the law, some of which may not be resolved until the appeal process is exhausted, so this is not an open-and-shut case for the PPO. Nevertheless, after all the political capital it has expended on the very public investigations (including the arrest), the PPO will be compelled to bring the case to court. It should have enough material to do that, though conviction is open to question.

The charge of financial irregularities alone is unlikely to be enough to topple Ozawa from his perch atop the DPJ before the Lower House general election. But the PPO is also looking for evidence of the more significant charge of unlawful intercession in exchange for economic benefit by an elected official or his political aides. Such quasi-bribery, criminal acts were banned by a special law that came into effect in 2001 designed to plug a loophole in the Criminal Code provisions for ordinary, run-of-the-mill bribery. This investigation could linger even after the political financing irregularity charge has gone to court, beyond the September deadline for the Lower House general election.

Ozawa serves at his own pleasure and will be able to survive the first indictment of his top political aide. But if the second one comes down the pike, I believe that the mounting public pressure on Ozawa to step down before the general election will prove irresistible. The Japanese media and the Japanese public do not have much sympathy for Ozawa. The circle of DPJ Diet members who will stand by him does not extend much beyond his 40-strong loyalists. So the question for the DPJ boils down to: Can it win with him? And the second ones looks fatal.

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