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2009年5月18日 (月)


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 12(IHT/Asahi: May 13,2009)
EDITORIAL: Ozawa steps down

Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) President Ichiro Ozawa finally announced his resignation on Monday. Had he acted sooner, we believe, his party would have been better able to cut its losses.

During the two months since Ozawa's state-paid aide was arrested in early March in connection with suspected illegal donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co., public opinion demanding Ozawa's resignation grew increasingly severe. This situation even helped raise the approval ratings for the abysmally unpopular Cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Recouping will not be easy

The next Lower House election must take place by September. But with Ozawa staying on as Minshuto leader, the party could suffer a defeat in the election and lose its chance to attain its long-held goal of seizing the reins of government. We believe it was this sense of crisis that ultimately made Ozawa decide to step down.

At his news conference Monday evening, Ozawa said, "In order to bring about a change of government, I am willingly sacrificing myself and resigning from my post." He also said, "By burning my own bridges, I am making absolutely sure that my party will triumph (in the next election)."

Another factor that must have precipitated Ozawa's decision to step down was the recent emergence of moves within Minshuto to force him out. Until then, most party members had remained silent or noncommittal, at least on the surface.

Since his aide's arrest, Ozawa has remained openly defiant of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, vowing to take them on. During Monday's news conference, too, Ozawa stressed that his conscience was "completely clear." It is possible that one reason why Ozawa dug in his heels for as long as two months was that he feared his resignation could be seen as an admission of defeat to the prosecutors.

The prosecutors have not yet declared an end to the investigation, but people's attention is now beginning to turn to the first court hearing of Ozawa's aide, which will be held shortly.

We believe Ozawa is now prepared to use the trial to challenge the manner in which prosecutors investigated the case and arrested his aide. We also expect Ozawa to take issue with prosecutors over the illegality of Nishimatsu's donations.

Minshuto is wasting no time in proceeding with the selection of Ozawa's successor, but it will not be easy for the party to regroup.

Before the Nishimatsu scandal came to light, Minshuto was on a roll and looked as if it was poised to seize power any day. But the party has since stalled. It revealed its inner turmoil in its inability to take a clear-cut position on many of the bills presented to the Diet, including budget bills. As well, the work of preparing its manifesto for the next Lower House election has been put on hold.

Explaining policies to voters

Why did Ozawa keep receiving huge donations from the general contractor for many years? Minshuto has vehemently denounced collusion involving politicians, bureaucrats and businesses in connection with public works projects and promised to radically change the "structure of the nation." Was Ozawa not the very antipode of what the party stood for?

Not only Ozawa, but also the rest of the party failed to address these obvious questions that many voters were asking.

Now the party has to undo all the damage caused by letting voters' mistrust fester and grow.

If Minshuto thinks it can automatically regain the public's trust once a new president is in place, it could not be more mistaken.

The election of the new president ought to take the form of multiple candidates competing on their policies. While the election's effects on Diet deliberations should be kept minimal, the party nevertheless needs to take innovative, proactive steps to take policy debates outside its walls so that the voting public can judge the party's principles and goals.

Another thing the party must do is outgrow its habitual reliance on Ozawa as the "problem fixer" and establish a new party persona under the new leader.

Ozawa was elected president three years ago to get Minshuto out of the mess over the fake e-mail fiasco. Ozawa then went on to prove his competence by leading the party to a historic victory in the 2007 Upper House election that brought the chamber under opposition control.

A former member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a brilliant election strategist, Ozawa is thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of LDP-style campaigning. And having held a series of key LDP posts, Ozawa has remained one of the biggest names in Japanese politics.

His background and personality have sometimes made a good number of voters and Minshuto members uneasy. Yet for Minshuto, which appeared weak, Ozawa was seen as a potent strongman indispensable in the party's quest for power.

Ozawa was likened to a strong but potentially lethal medicine for Minshuto. And sure enough, he caused some "side effects." For instance, since Ozawa became president, some of the party's signature policies disappeared from the campaign platform. They included a plan to raise the consumption tax to finance social security spending, and a promise to ban political donations from companies awarded contracts for public works projects.

As for Minshuto's policies concerning the introduction of child-support allowance and the elimination of tolls for expressways, the ruling coalition and others attacked them as "lacking in viable funding plans."

In diplomacy, Ozawa made a series of eyebrow-raising comments that deviated from the party's basic position. For example, he caused a stir when he told reporters in February, "The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet is enough to secure the U.S. military presence in the Far East."

LDP also accountable

In 2007, Ozawa tried to pull an arbitrary stunt by negotiating with then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to form a grand coalition with the LDP. The attempt backfired, and Ozawa expressed his intention to resign, which he retracted a couple of days later.
But as this episode illustrated, our impression of Minshuto under Ozawa's leadership was that it was overtly and almost shamelessly ambitious in its quest for the reins of government, and that the party's policies were secondary to political jockeying.

Minshuto must now rush to reshape its foreign and domestic policies.

Should Minshuto succeed in recovering from the mess, it will be the Aso administration's turn to face the public's scrutiny.

Although the Cabinet's approval ratings have risen after plunging to an abysmal 13 percent, opinion polls still show that nearly 60 percent of the respondents do not support the Cabinet. This is certainly not a figure that Aso can take lightly.

Whether the LDP can win the next election under Aso has been a nagging concern among LDP members, and their voices may grow louder in the coming days.

It is now the responsibility of our elected representatives, especially members of the nation's two major political parties--the LDP and Minshuto--to make sure that the next Lower House election will truly enable voters to elect a government of their choice.

Faced with the serious economic downturn and other problems, such as the aging of society, low birthrate and declining population, the nation is undergoing a period of major transition.

In fighting a Lower House election at such a time, the LDP and Minshuto alike must compete on the persuasiveness of their respective policies and the personal appeal of their respective leaders.

Which party will shape up first to gain campaigning advantage? There is not much time left.


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