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JAPAN: Ruling Party Scandal a Blow to Political Reform

TOKYO, Jan 20 2010 (IPS) - Allegations of money laundering within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) appear to have dashed hopes that the ruling party would distinguish itself from the scandal-plagued conservative administration that had ruled Japan for almost half a century.

DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa is under investigation by the Public Prosecutors’ Office for his political funding group’s questionable land purchase in 2004.

Money used to buy the land, which amounted to over 4 million U.S. dollars, allegedly came from illegally obtained corporate donations, specifically from a construction firm building a dam in Ozawa’s home prefecture, Iwate.

The company’s executives had confessed to paying 500,000 dollars to an aide of Ozawa as a donation after being awarded a contract to build a dam in Iwate, located in Tohoku region on Honshu island, Japan’s main island, which comprises the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Yokohama.

Pressures have been brought to bear on Ozawa to come clean on the Rikuzankai funds.

According to some polls, public approval ratings for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s cabinet have dropped by double digits to 40 percent from 50 percent last December since news of arrests related to the scandal broke over the weekend.

Other polls show a groundswell of public opinion, hovering around 70 percent, that Ozawa should resign from his post and take responsibility for the scandal.

Ozawa is widely credited with steering the erstwhile opposition party to a resounding victory in August, bringing an end to the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) once monolithic political dominance.

A one-time member of the LDP, Ozawa led the DPJ until an earlier funding scandal forced him to step down as party president early last year, when his former right-hand man Yukio Hatoyama took over the party leadership.

In addition to falling approval ratings, the scandal seems to signal to Japanese voters that the DPJ is no different from the LDP, which was ousted as the main ruling party in last year’s lower house election.

“The priority for me is the economy and unemployment,” said Hiro Fujita, a businessman in his 30s. “He should resign, so the government can focus on the economy.”

A middle-aged housewife said, “He should explain it in our language … he owes it to the people.”

“It’s politics as usual, just as corrupt. I think he should resign,” said Yushi Komatsu, a university student.

But the DPJ stalwart seems undeterred by a swelling chorus of calls for his resignation. He refuses to resign, vowing to continue performing his public duties.

“I absolutely cannot accept what has happened,” said a defiant Ozawa, 67, referring to the arrests, during the first national convention of the DPJ, held on Saturday, since the new government came to power four months ago.

Three of his former aides were arrested on charges of misreporting campaign donations. One of them is 36-year-old Tomohiro Ishikawa, a lower house member who belongs to the DPJ.

“The arrests were conducted to match the timing of our party convention. I cannot accept this. If this is allowed, the future of Japanese democracy will be very dark,” he exclaimed during the convention. The third arrest was made during the gathering.

The arrests are likely to negatively impact how DPJ will fare in a crucial mid- year election, due in July.

“The money laundering scandal surrounding Ichiro Ozawa and his political fundraising organisation, Rikuzankai, is extremely damaging to the DPJ-led government in Japan, said Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Washington- based Mansfield Foundation, an independent organisation that promotes understanding and cooperation among the nations and peoples of Asia and the United States

“Unless Ozawa can provide a convincing argument that he was in no way involved in the money laundering operation, it seems likely that he will indeed have to resign, ending a long and storied career of one of the most influential politicians in recent Japanese history.”

As secretary general of the DPJ, the beleaguered ruling party stalwart is also the key campaign strategist for the upcoming upper house elections.

Without Ozawa’s campaign expertise, there are fears the DPJ will not be able to gain enough seats in the next parliamentary elections – deemed key to shedding its coalition partners so it can fully implement its legislative agenda, noted Konishi. The administration’s proposed 7.2 trillion yen (79 billion dollars) stimulus package may also be derailed as a result of the scandal.

“If the Hatoyama administration cannot present itself as a ‘cleaner’ alternative, it may allow the LDP to make a political comeback,” said Konishi.

Konishi also warned that a sizable bloc of the DPJ, known as the ‘Ozawa Children’, will also be tainted by their association with the powerful secretary general and the Rikuzankai scandal. “If some of them are at all implicated directly in the scandal, it could significantly hollow out the rank-and-file of the DPJ,” he said.

At the televised DPJ convention, Ozawa, reacting to the allegations against him and his party, railed against the prosecutors, accusing them of conducting a “politically motivated” investigation.

Miki Tanikawa, an expert on Japan’s international relations and history, belied his claim.

“Some say that prosecutors, who are bureaucrats, didn’t like the idea of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama trying to curtail the power of bureaucrats. Prosecutors have different roles than administrative bureaucrats and they could care less about Hatoyama’s bureaucratic reform, which doesn’t try to limit the powers of the prosecutors at all.”

Hatoyama was swept into power on a campaign platform to rein in the unbridled power of the Japanese bureaucracy, which includes prosecutors who enjoy vast powers.

Prosecutors are still dependent on government expenditures, but their first concern is that they remain powerful and independent and are able to arrest corrupt politicians, Tanikawa explained.

He added that by showing their prosecutorial muscles, prosecutors maintain their morale and feel good about themselves. “That’s the tradition of Japanese prosecutors.”

Amid the scandal, Hatoyama has stood behind Ozawa. He said he believes and trusts Ozawa and the “party has to stick together in solidarity” against the serious accusations against the latter.

Still, some members of the local media have claimed that cracks have begun to show within the DPJ, some of whose members believe he should resign.

Notwithstanding the sentiments within the party, the DPJ’s tarnished image does not bode well for a party that once presented itself as a reformist to a people that had long been alienated from politics.

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