Japan’s politics in turmoil amidst economic crisis

By Lars Nicolaysen, DPA,

Tokyo : Caught in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the end of World War II, Japan’s political landscape looks a mess.

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Taro Aso, leader of the world’s second-largest economy and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are widely regarded as unable to lead Japan out of the slump. Verbal gaffes and the recent resignation of his finance minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, who appeared to be drunk during a Group of Seven press conference sent Aso’s support ratings below 10 percent.

A power shift to the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and its leader Ichiro Ozawa at elections to the lower house which have to be held by September seemed as good as certain.

But all of a sudden, a corruption scandal involving illegal party donations worth $2 million by the Nishimatsu Kensetsu construction company has thrown the DPJ into turmoil, thrashing many hopes.

Prosecutors, who investigated Nishimatsu and its links with the LDP for weeks, now extended their inquiry to the DPJ and arrested Ozawa’s secretary earlier this week.

The opposition leader, who was already been seen by many as the future prime minister, angrily accused the investigators of abusing their powers and spoke of an “unfair exercise of investigative power, politically and


Immediately conspiracy theories, centered on Aso and the LDP, which has ruled Japan almost continuously for the past 50 years, abounded.

Yet political analysts reject the claim that the probe is politically motivated.

For Ozawa’s party, the scandal represents an unexpected setback, raising fears that Japan’s voters may come to believe Ozawa is no cleaner than the scandal – and corruption-prone LDP.

After all, Ozawa himself was a political heavyweight in the old LDP system which for decades based its power on providing ample treats for its clientele, before he broke with the party.

Ozawa and a group of reform-minded supporters abandoned the LDP for the opposition in 1993 following an internal power struggle.

He took over the leadership of the DPJ in 2006 and led Japan’s largest opposition party to a landslide victory in the July 2007 upper house elections.

The DPJ has grown to such strength, that for the first time in 50 years it seems possible that a single opposition party can challenge the “permanent rule” of the LDP.

The DPJ’s chances to wrest the majority from the LDP in the lower house of Japan’s Diet were never as good as now. Therefore, the corruption scandal could not have come at a better time for the ruling party.

“As hard as it may be for Ozawa, I think he needs to step down for the party’s sake,” political scientist Jiro Yamaguchi of Hokkaido University said in an analysis published by the Japan Times.

It was the only way for the opposition party to limit the damage, he said, but Ozawa has ruled out resignation so far.

Analysts believe, Aso could take advantage of the opposition’s conundrum and move the elections up, probably as early as next month. Another argument in favour of this thesis is that Aso just succeeded to ram a controversial law to finance the supplementary budget of the fiscal year ending March 31 through parliament.

In a move blasted by critics as economic nonsense, Aso is providing voters with cash goodies worth around $120.

Yet, some of Japan’s rural voters suffering under the crisis may be grateful, but whether the combination of cash and DPJ scandal will be enough for Aso and the LDP, remains to be seen.