Today (Nov. 12), the Tokyo High Court rejected the special prosecutors’ appeal and upheld Ichiro Ozawa’s acquittal of charges of violating the Political Funds Control Act. This did not come as a surprise since legal experts had tended to expect that outcome, particularly after the prosecutors had not been able to secure a review of the evidence by the High Court. The prosecutors had already shown some reluctance in deciding to seek to overturn the initial verdict; it is likely that they will decline to pursue the case further in the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding the likelihood of this contingency, there had been relatively little mainstream media speculation* of any role for Ozawa in the ongoing efforts to present a Third Force alternative to the status quo or in the post-election political landscape, where neither a LDP-Komeito coalition government nor an unlikely continuation of the current ruling coalition between the DPJ and the People’s New Party PNP will command a majority in the HOC, a situation that is unlikely to change after the 2013 HOC election barring more thoroughgoing political realignment.
Looking at the numbers alone, this does not make sense. Ichiro Ozawa’s People’s Life First (LF) has 49 Diet members in its fold, 37 in the House of Representatives (HOR) and 12 in the House of Councilors (HOC). Many of the nine members of the Kizuna Party, who bolted the DPJ before Ozawa to escape supporters’ wrath at the tax hike, are believed to be associated with him. (Ozawa himself had his hand virtually forced by the followers who were poised to leave the ship without him.) Even without the five, the LF has the third largest contingency in the Diet, behind the DPJ and LDP, and dwarfs the other upstarts and, in HOR, Komeito as well.
However, there’s a major downside for any would-be collaborators, including Toru Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara, the two people who are emerging as the key figures in the immediate future of the Third Force movement. It is a downside so big that it has kept the mainstream media from spending much time on Ozawa’s post-acquittal prospects. Or so I think. Let me explain.
First, joining forces with Ozawa carries the taint of the old-school politics from which first the DPJ and now the Third Force movements are trying to dissociate from. Just defending an association with Ozawa will be a time-consuming negative and a drag on political momentum. For the acquittal will not reward Ozawa with a fully clean bill of health. The court of first instance made it obvious that it was merely giving him the benefit of the doubt regarding his understanding and knowledge of the nature of the inscription in question. Moreover, the mysterious maneuvers around the funding of the nine-figure real estate transaction will continue to resonate with the broader doubts around his financial and real estate holdings as well as the massive political funds, part of it coming from the proto-DPJ, squirreled away and folded into his personal fiefdom prior to the 1998 merger. Ozawa can bring the matter to political closure if he successfully defends himself in testimony before the appropriate Diet committee, an act that he has steadfastly refused to do and is unlikely to do any time soon.
Second, the sheer magnitude of the Ozawa team acts as a deterrent in itself. His minions easily outnumber the collective membership of the upstarts, who would not want to be at a numerical disadvantage going into the HOR election. At a minimum, most if not all of Ozawa’s HOR members will have to be accommodated in any coordination to maximize the elective value of the votes that the various Third Force movements can muster in the single-seat districts.
Third, and this is a related point, Ozawa has shown a repeated knack for dominating his political space—until he winds up wrecking it over the long- or not so long-run. Hashimoto and Ishihara, two of the most dominant and openly combative personalities on the Japanese political scene should have enough time cohabiting, if ever. Adding Ozawa to the mix comes across as preposterous. Plus, Ishihara has expressed his unwillingness to work with Ozawa on multiple occasions. Your Party will also flinch at an association with Ozawa.
Finally, it is unclear how much mojo Ozawa will retain post-election. His forces range from the few members of his entourage that have stuck with him through the years to the horde of vulnerable newbies fleeing what they saw as a ship sinking under the weight of the consumption tax hike legislation and the fallout from the Fukushima-daiichi accident. If conventional wisdom prevails, their HOR numbers—and their power to help elect a prime minister and pass budgets and legislation—will be greatly diminished. And the remainder will show little of the kind of policy spark that can draw media attention in the way that the new guard in the DPJ did in the years leading up to the 2009 takeover.
Of course there will be a minor flood of media reports over the first few workdays, and another, smaller burst when the public prosecutor formally folds (or, improbably, files an appeal with the Supreme Court). However, but I expect the excitement to die quickly, leaving the Third Force and the mainstream media to relegate Ozawa and his followers to the margins of the political story through the year’s end and the coming year.**
Sidebar: Some people, I’m sure, will revive anti-Ozawa conspiracy theories. First, the indictment: No way, in my view. Too many people, including two private lawyers who have no personal reasons to bear the brunt of the burden of the conspiracy, have to be in on the lowdown to make it work. That’s the same basic flaw of most conspiracy theories. Second, the media: Yes, sort of, but what there is, Ozawa has all but asked for it. I think it is true that the mainstream media and much of the tabloids/weeklies world do not like Ozawa, and I am sure that this affects how they report (or not) stories around him. But there are the facts. The money trail is odd, one that Yukio Edano for one in the DPJ had talked about openly even before the legal dam broke; likewise are his real estate transactions using political funds. On a less unsavory front, his penchant for setting up new political parties then wrecking them and shedding allies along the way, is well-chronicled. And when it comes to doing something with all this smoke, well, a little bit of public communications i.e. massaging/messaging the media could come in handy. Instead, Ozawa has been one of the most uncommunicative public figures on the Japanese political landscape, willing to open up only under his own terms, only on the subject of his choice, and if at all possible only before a uniformly favorable audience. This is not surprising for a man who lacks facility with words, clams up in the face of verbal challenges, and has stated a dislike for the staple of politicians: pumping-the-flesh, good old-fashioned election campaigning. It is surprising for a man who continues to seek elective office. The media is not likely to give its subjects the benefit of the doubt; Ozawa practically ensures that. It’s more bias than conspiracy. I suspect many of you already knew this story; it still bears mentioning, I think, on the occasion of what is likely to be his ultimate release from the criminal courts, but not the court of public opinion.
* The metropolitan tabloids, “sports” sheets, and weekly magazines, which cannot get enough of facts, factoids, and often lurid speculation around Ozawa, are another matter. However, their readership and, apparently, influence on TV political reports are significantly smaller.
** This is not to deny the possibility of the LF playing a PNP/SDP-like role if the numbers add up just so.