Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Three Events to Watch Out for in Ozawa’s Immediate Future

Aso-LDP up, Ozawa-DPJ down in the polls, and the DPJ-favored candidate loses in both gubernatorial elections. The 15/55 trillion economic package is getting mixed results—some analysts think it’s too expensive, others think the money isn’t going to the right places—but at least the ruling coalition is playing the game and going long. Ozawa, unpopular with the electorate even during the best of times, has become an albatross around the DPJ’s neck, a The Other LDP hachimaki wrapped around the head. It is hard to avoid the impression that he could make even his strongest supporters very happy by resigning as party president and concentrating on what he purportedly does best, run the election campaign. In that respect, there are three events that I will be watching.

The first one is the public opinion poll that the DPJ will be taking between April 24-26. The fact that the DPJ has disclosed the event is in itself surprising. We only know of the existence of internal polls through fleeting references in the mainstream media; indeed, to announce it would defeat its purpose if an unbiased assessment had been what was being sought. Note that media polls consistently show a partisan bias—Asahi to the left, Yomiuri to the right—leading most observers to conclude that individually they are useful only for the trend lines. Since the DPJ poll will be a one-off event, it can only be assessed in the context of those media polls. In short, Ozawa and the DPJ will have to do substantially better than the most contemporary Asahi polls to be able to credibly claim that they’ve managed to turn the corner.

The second event is the report from the four-member outside experts commission that the DPJ has set up to look into the accountability of politicians, public prosecutors, and the media. The commission is supposed to issue its report a month from now, in the middle of May. Let me make some guesses about the report. First of all, it will be highly critical of the Public Prosecutors Office for manipulating the media and by extension public opinion by a series of leaks and will demand transparency and accountability. Closely connected to this point will be an indictment of the media for playing along with PPO and failing to discharge its public duty. It may also cast doubt at the legal underpinning of the prosecution’s case against Ozawa’s deputy, but in that case will stop short of explicitly accusing the PPO of bringing a weak case to court just to save face. The report will not spare the politicians, criticizing them for the ruse that they employ to contravene the spirit if not the letter of the law regulating corporate contributions. The brunt of the blow will, implicitly if not explicitly, fall on the LDP—a pox on both houses if you will, with the LDP living out of the much bigger one. Still, it will not sidestep the contrivances of the Ozawa camp; it will be an event that the Ozawa team will be more than happy to put behind…if it can. In any case, what will not be in the report is the kind of wholesale indictment of “the establishment”, i.e. the conspiracy allegations that come from Ozawa’s hardcore DPJ supporters.

The timing of the third event, or even whether it will occur at all, is unknown to the public. Namely, will someone from METI Minister Toshihiro Nikai’s camp be indicted, and if so, when? The mainstream media have been awfully quiet on this front lately; you have to go to the daily tabloids and the weeklies to get a Nikai fix these days. I still have a hard time believing that the PPO can fail to formally charge someone there; if it doesn’t, there is no way that the media will let the matter die quietly—the PPO will have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. If one or more of Nikai’s people is indicted, Nikai’s resignation will soon follow. A Cabinet Minister serves at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. Besides, there is no political upside for hanging on.

The first and third events, depending on how they turn out, can force Ozawa’s hand. The second event is unlikely to have that kind of force, but it will give Ozawa an opportunity to bow out gracefully in the interests of the Japanese public, the DPJ, and last but not least the greater cause of political change that he claims to serve.

In all this, it is interesting that the international front has all but disappeared from the political agenda. The North Korean missile launch and the administrative fumbling accompanying it and (to a lesser degree) the intricate Six-Party charades around the UN Security Council gave the media plenty of material, and the DPJ made some stabs at knocking the Aso administration for mismanagement. For the electorate, life basically went on as usual. It’s even more about simply going through the motions as far as Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels going up against Somali pirates are concerned, as the DPJ will only do the barest minimum to keep the skittish Social Democrats from bolting.

Finally, if anyone’s really interested, there’s Ozawa’s Ozawa’s 5:00PM press conference.

The DPJ’s four-member commission consisting of three lawyer and a sociologist, professors all, deserves a closer look. Nobuo Gohara, an ex-prosecutor and corporate compliance expert, has been critical of the Public Prosecutors Office with regard to the Nishimatsu scandal, claiming among other things that the PPO has stretched the letter of the law to cover a situation that it was not meant to cover and ringing the alarm at the political dangers of this self-appointed vigilante role that the PPO is assuming. He has also been highly critical of the media in the past for lies and cover-ups regarding its own fraudulent reporting. Takaaki Hattori is a sociologist specializing in media studies, and is also a strong critic of media cover-ups. He is something of an activist on free speech issues; as such he has not endeared himself to the nationalist-conservative elements of the LDP. However that may be, neither of the two appear to be partisan figures. They appear to be the farthest things from go-to guys for a DPJ whitewash job.

Similarly, I cannot find a way to challenge the integrity and independence of the chairman, Jun Iio. Iio is a prominent political scientist and strong advocate of political change, but far from a DPJ mouthpiece. He has taken a wait-and-see approach to Ozawa’s latest travails, and apparently feels that the LDP regime has run its course in its current reincarnation. However, Ozawa does not appear to be the kind of change that he is looking for. I have no thoughts about the fourth member, a CPA and attorney-at-law.

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