News reports say that Toshihiro Nikai, in his second tour as METI Minister, has been singled out by the Public Prosecutors Office for special attention out of the rest of his LDP colleagues on the take from the Nishimatsu (alleged) dummies. This is obviously good news for the DPJ because it spreads the…manure around. Adding spice to the….okay, what’s particularly…delicious is the fact that Nikai is a sitting Cabinet member, which means that the Aso administration is taking a direct hit and that the Prime Minister’s judgment and leadership are yet again being called into question. Less obviously, I think that this story has extra legs because Nikai’s relationship with one of the main Nishimatsu figures goes all the way back to his days as Wakayama Prefecture assemblyman—an heirloom that he inherited from his father. In other words, other things being equal, there is a greater likelihood of establishing a direct politician-donor link for Nikai than Ozawa. This is significant because the bar is high for the PPO when it comes to bringing indictments under the Political Finances Regulation Act against individual politicians for acts committed by their political finances management organizations and making them stick.* The DPJ won’t look any better, but the LDP will look worse, which is almost as good for escaping the hungry bear.
Nikai’s plight is actually bad news for Ozawa, though, if he really wants to stay on—something that I’m not completely convinced is the case. A Nikai resignation will touch off media pressure on Ozawa to follow suit, and “we’re no worse than the LDP” is not good, as an excuse or a campaign slogan. Now a Cabinet member, who serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, is far easier to get rid of than a party president, who can in principle stay on if he//she so desires short of being kicked out by an intra-party majority. Moreover, taking leave from the Cabinet, like so many of his LDP colleagues have done in recent administrations alone, is personally less damaging as political careers go. So Nikai is much more likely to take leave, which will ratchet up media (and hence voter) pressure on Ozawa. If I knew game theory, I’d probably be saying that the odds of the DPJ rank-and-file not in thrall to Ozawa will anticipate such an LDP move and raise objections to Ozawa’s continued stewardship have improved as well. In fact, I think that there is now a good chance, depending very much on how the criminal investigations unfold, that both Nikai and Ozawa will end up resigning by the end of the month, allowing the latter to concentrate on the experientially more comfortable and physically less taxing role of political strategist/fixer extraordinaire. Needless to say, that would not be good for the Prime Minister, whose LDP support base has always been tenuous and is increasingly so.
* A politician is criminally liable for acts committed by the chief financial officer of his/her political finances management organization only if he has failed to exercise due diligence in the appointment and oversight of that officer. Japanese jurisprudence places the burden of proof on this judgment call squarely on the shoulders of the prosecution. A direct link is easier to make a call on the evidence and conviction carries far greater penalties—potential jail time, if most likely suspended, and suspension of the right to stand for election, which leads to automatic disqualification for elected officials—than mere lack of due diligence, for which there are provisions only for a fine and the suspension of political rights is at the discretion of the courts.
I’ll post on the weekend opinion polls later if I have the time. Suffice to say that they look bad for Ozawa, and that the DPJ and LDP have traded a few percentage points of support between them. The Aso administration shows a slight improvement as well. Given the circumstances, this all looks like a case of dead cats bouncing on the part of the ins. The media will seize on this though to put more pressure on Ozawa, who in turn is likely to dig in. Which brings the story back to the first point; that is, the fate of the METI Minister. The probably indictment two weeks later is likely to be the inflection point.