Will Japan's Opposition Head Quit?

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In Japanese politics, ideologies and policies are usually afterthoughts. Politicians are valued for their skill at navigating Japan's factions and parties, shaping government by forming and breaking coalitions. So when Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the country's largest opposition party, announced Sunday night that he had submitted his resignation after the party rejected his suggestion that it collaborate with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), political watchers wondered what the 65-year-old political veteran had up his sleeve. A full 36 hours later, they're still wondering.

Before former Prime Minister Juinchiro Koizumi swept onto the political scene in 2001 as a destroyer of Japan's long-enshrined traditions of political factionalism and seniority, there was Ozawa. After an early political start as an upper house LDP parliamentarian at the tender age of 27, Ozawa wove in and out of no fewer than five political parties, destroying everything in his path. A firm believer in realpolitik, Ozawa worked behind the scenes to realign coalitions and alliances, leaving a trail of political causalties — mostly in the form of failed coups against the LDP, which has ruled Japan virtually unchallenged since World War II. Upstaged by Koizumi's five-year term as Prime Minister, Ozawa returned to the limelight after being elected to head the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in April 2006. Under his leadership, the DPJ wrested control of the upper house of Parliament from the LDP in July, an historic loss that ultimately led to the resignation of Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, and opened the door to what could have been the first real two-party system in modern Japanese history.

And then things took a strange turn. Last week Ozawa held closed talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda over an unpopular defense bill that Fukuda would rather negotiate on than attempt to force through Parliament. Ozawa returned to the DPJ leadership with Fukuda's suggestion for a giant LDP-DPJ coalition, saying that he thought working with the LDP would better reflect the DPJ's policies. Not surprisingly, senior DPJ members disagreed; many criticized Ozawa for entertaining thoughts of sleeping with the enemy. In a Sunday press conference, Ozawa claimed that this refusal was tantamount to a vote of no-confidence, and announced his intention to resign.

The DPJ hasn't accepted Ozawa's resignation, and Party Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama maintains that the party is still attempting to talk him out of it. But after all the confusion and discord created by Sunday's press conference, — Ozawa also told reporters that his party was unlikely to win the next general election — his effectiveness as a leader, should he return, is questionable. The problem the party faces: If not Ozawa, then who? For the DPJ, it's an uncomfortably familiar issue. Anyone who's anyone among its ranks has already been leader at one point in the last five years — some, like Naoto Kan, more than once — a major headache for a party that is still struggling to be taken seriously enough to rule the country. And letting Ozawa go might not be in their best interests, either. Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai calls Ozawa “a necessary evil” for a party cobbled together out of dissatisfied pols from the left, right and center. "It takes a man like Ozawa to run such a Yugoslavia of a party — divided, unstable, sectarian," he says. The DPJ suffers from an identity crisis — even its opposition to the LDP anti-terrorism bill is not shared by all members. It was largely Ozawa's autocratic pull and political savvy that unified the party into a formidable opposition force. Cutting loose the coalition-buster who made clear his willingness to collaborate with the LDP is a frightening thought for the DPJ. Given his past penchant for forming new political parties, the worry is that Ozawa the destroyer could form his own coalition with the ruling LDP — destroying the DPJ's hard-won upper house majority in the process.