The Ozawa dilemma

Lurking in the background of the debate over how the DPJ will change the policymaking process should it take power is a question that cuts to the very heart of how the DPJ will govern: what will the DPJ do with Ozawa Ichiro?

The idea that in a mere three months Hatoyama Yukio has imposed a “Hatoyama system” on the party that he inherited from Ozawa is absurd. That is through no fault of Hatoyama’s, but rather a testament to the impact Ozawa had on the DPJ since he and his Liberal Party merged with the DPJ in 2003. Ozawa is arguably responsible for transforming the DPJ from an idealistic party without a serious plan for winning a national election and governing Japan into a more pragmatic party capable of contesting elections nationwide. He has attracted young, pragmatic candidates into the DPJ and supported their careers, in the process building a cadre of younger Diet members loyal to Ozawa. (Sankei numbers this group at around 100.) In all the discussion of the DPJ as a “ragtag” assortment of refugees from other parties, it is worth recalling that more than half the DPJ’s Diet members have only been members of the DPJ — a majority that will grow if the DPJ wins the general election this month. So despite having moved into the background, Ozawa remains an indispensable player in the DPJ as the general election approaches.

Which is a problem for the DPJ as it considers how it will structure its administration. Changing the policymaking process — often considered as a matter of keeping the bureaucrats down — is as much a matter of keeping the ruling party down too, depriving the ruling party of the veto power that the LDP and its organs have wielded over the policies of LDP governments. If the DPJ is serious about unifying cabinet and ruling party leadership, it should ensure that the party’s formal leaders and informal power brokers should be in the cabinet, with a position in the government organization chart and as a result directly accountable to the prime minister. The DPJ has already indicated that its policy research council chair will move into government as the head of its national strategy office. At other times, DPJ officials have suggested that the party’s secretary-general would be included in the cabinet and have a portfolio for managing Diet affairs. In the Sankei article mentioned in this post, however, Kan Naoto, the party’s point man for administrative reform, has apparently backed away from the idea of including the secretary-general in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio. Given the rumors abroad that Ozawa may be named secretary-general should the DPJ win the general election, this arrangement could undermine a DPJ government.

Ozawa is clearly a talented politician, but he is far from flawless. And he has his own ideas for how Japan should be reformed — and a burning desire to see the LDP destroyed. If Ozawa is outside of the government but wielding power through his loyalists, pressuring the government when he disapproves of its decisions, the DPJ will have merely replaced the acronym of the ruling party without changing the substance of the policymaking process. If the DPJ is serious about transparent, accountable government, then Ozawa must not be allowed to influence and potentially undermine the government from a perch outside the cabinet. He must be included in the cabinet and have a position in the chain of command, making him formally accountable to the prime minister.

Naturally including him in the cabinet contains its own risks. It would still be possible for him to outshine the prime minister, to pressure and control him from within the government. Hatoyama would have to establish early on that his authority is real. But Hatoyama would have to do this in any case, and it may be easier to do it with Ozawa within the cabinet. Including Ozawa in the cabinet also means finding the right job for him, a job that turns his political abilities into an asset for the government instead of a liability, which they proved to be for the Hosokawa and Hata governments in 1993-1994. It is no surprise that Takemura Masayoshi warned Friday of the power Ozawa will wield should the DPJ win: Takemura, chief cabinet secretary in the Hosokawa government who took his New Party Sakigake into coalition with the LDP and the Socialists in 1994 when Ozawa moved to exclude the Socialists from what would become the New Frontier Party, is intimately familiar with the dangers of Ozawa’s political scheming.

The fact of Ozawa’s power is inescapable. The challenge for the DPJ is to incorporate Ozawa’s power into the government, to turn it into a buttress for the government. I don’t think the DPJ knows precisely how it will solve the Ozawa dilemma, perhaps in part because DPJ leaders fear that to offend Ozawa is to risk having him leave the party with his “faction,” much as he resigned when criticized by the party for his negotiations with Fukuda Yasuo over the formation of a grand coalition. There may be no solution. Ozawa’s political “DNA” as Tanaka Kakuei’s favorite son may mean that Ozawa is destined to always want to wield power as a kuromaku, free from the strictures of accountable, transparent government. In this case, the DPJ may have little choice but to let Ozawa stay outside of the government as secretary-general — making the party’s 2003 merger with Ozawa a Faustian bargain, capable of bringing the DPJ into power but hamstringing the party once in power.

Thanks to his prodigious talents, Ozawa deserves much of the credit for putting the DPJ in a position to defeat the LDP this month. The question is whether he will undo a DPJ victory due to his equally prodigious flaws.

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