If there is one lesson that this upper house campaign has taught us, it is a lesson that we all should have already learned: there is no stopping Ozawa Ichirō. Despite what looked like a marvelous coup by Hatoyama Yukio in getting Ozawa to step down as DPJ secretary-general, Ozawa has been a public critic of the Kan government throughout the campaign.
However, is Ozawa’s criticism of the government — he’s been particularly harsh about the Kan government’s comments about raising the consumption tax to 10%, which he argues with plenty of justification that the government has made life more difficult for DPJ candidates — the prelude to Ozawa’s being a thorn in Kan’s side after the election (as Yuka Hayashi suggests in this post at the Wall Street Journal‘s Japan Realtime)?
It is tempting to see Ozawa’s remarks as the beginning of an Ozawa-led anti-mainstream within the DPJ that will force the Kan government to make further concessions to party backbenchers when it comes to policymaking, particular if the DPJ falls short of a majority on Sunday.
Working in Kan’s favor, however, is that he has government and party leadership united behind him. United in their opposition to Ozawa’s influence, Kan’s leadership team already looks more effective than the Hatoyama-Ozawa team, missteps regarding the consumption tax notwithstanding. More importantly, Kan has already made concessions to the party’s backbenchers, giving them a vehicle for having their voices heard by the cabinet. Ozawa’s concerns about the government’s abandoning last year’s manifesto would carry more weight if the Kan government had not already begun working on a mechanism for incorporating the concerns of backbenchers into government decision making. Furthermore, there are few signs that Ozawa is any less unpopular now than he was before resigning as secretary-general — or that MPs are keen on preserving every piece of the 2009 manifesto. While there are still concerns that Ozawa stands at the head of a proto-faction that could number more than 100 members, I wonder how many members Ozawa can actually count on to back him. How many backbenchers would be willing to buck the new party regime to stand with Ozawa? It is worth noting that few senior party members have echoed Ozawa’s critique of the Kan government.
That’s not to say that party members are happy with how the government has handled the consumption tax issue over the past month. The understandable desire to give the voters a chance to render judgment on the Kan government’s new approach to the consumption tax likely forced the government to roll out the proposal before properly vetting it with party members, which in turn led the government to back away from its initial position, ironically damaging the position of the government and the DPJ even further.
But backbencher dissatisfaction does not automatically translate into support for Ozawa. Far from signaling the beginning of an Ozawa-led anti-mainstream, Ozawa’s behavior during the campaign could signal a new role for Ozawa as an internal critic, concerned less with vying for control of the party than with keeping the party on what he sees as the right path. It seems to me that the Kan government could live with Ozawa’s moving into this role.