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"Shadow Shogun" goes toe-to-toe with Japan's PM

"Shadow Shogun" goes toe-to-toe with Japan's PM

By Jon Day

Former Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa has gone toe-to-toe with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with the launch of his new political party which the power broker has vowed will stand against Noda's signature of tax hike plans, take an anti-nuclear power stance and maintain its promises to the people.

Ozawa's new party, the fourth he has launched in many decades -- earning him the nickname "The Destroyer" for the number of political parties he has created and dismantled -- is called Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (meaning putting people's lives first) -- an old DPJ slogan -- and is comprised of 37 lower house lawmakers and 12 upper house lawmakers who dramatically bolted from the ruling party in mass-exodus last week.

ANTI-TAX

The Ozawa-led defections were in protest against Noda's plans to raise Japan's sales tax to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2015.

Ozawa and his allies believe that the current DPJ stance on doubling the nation's tax runs contrary to the party's original pledges made in 2009, which saw the DPJ swing into power, ending more than half a century of the almost unbroken Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule in Japan.

The 70-year old political kingpin has denounced his former party as being dishonest and has stated that the "original" DPJ had vowed not to raise consumption tax here for at least four years after wrestling power away from the Liberals.

"The Democratic Party of Japan betrayed the Japanese people and our first goal is to overturn the tax hike bill," said Ozawa at his party's inaugural meeting Wednesday.

Ozawa and his band of defectors have also become increasingly perturbed at Noda's use of key policy pledges made in 2009 as bargaining chips to curry favor in a divided parliament in which the opposition bloc hold the majority in the two-house bicameral system of parliament.

Noda's dissenters believe that he agreed not to pursue the party's promise to bring about health care reform and ensure increased social security benefits, in return for opposition support for his tax hike plans.

But while at first glance it may appear as though Ozawa's party, with only 37 members from the more powerful lower house, may not have much clout, observers have said that the veteran politician has been reaching out to a host of smaller opposition parties and groups, while at the same time honing his party's specific policies, the latter of which are expected to be announced next week.

JOINING FORCES

"Ozawa doubtlessly is busying himself with exploratory meetings in the hope of forming a new kind of coalition," political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.

"He will be looking to accrue enough power to block Noda's tax hike bill from clearing the upper house and submit a no-confidence motion against Noda and his Cabinet and thus force the premier to either step down, or dissolve the lower house for a snap election, " Muramatsu said.

Regardless of the outcome of the tax hike bill, the opposition camp has already and on many occasions said it intends to ensure that a general election is held before schedule, as Noda's DPJ, following last week's defections, hold only 250 of the 480 seats in the lower chamber and is deemed by the opposition camp to be in "dire straits."

"The DPJ's ability to maintain power is weakening," LDP chief party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki told the local press recently.

"I'll force Noda to dissolve the lower house and call a general election as soon as possible," he said.

In addition, main opposition Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara told reporters that, "There is no other way to settle this confusion but to dissolve the lower house."

Ozawa, also dubbed the "Shadow Shogun" for his wheeler-dealer style of back room politics, is looking to ally his party with others who primarily stand united on Ozawa's anti-tax bandwagon, or indeed on other issues pertaining to increased social welfare and less reliance (ultimately zero) on nuclear energy.

Political observers have noted that Japan's newest party is keen to join hands with the likes of the Social Democratic Party, the New Party Daichi and the newly-formed Kizuna Party, which is also comprised solely of disgruntled ex-DPJ members.

Sources close to the Ozawa camp have said that the kingmaker is also looking to ally himself with local groups to help sway public opinion ahead of a possible election, such as with the hugely popular Osaka Ishin no Kai (meaning Osaka restoration group), run by well-liked Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.

"Let's not forget that Ozawa's new party is already the third- largest in parliament's more powerful lower house and the fourth largest in the upper house," Japan affairs commentator Kaoru Imori told Xinhua.

"If Ozawa can convince a few more lower house lawmakers to jump ship, then the balance of power could shift dramatically in the near future," he said.

An alliance of 51 or more members will be enough for Ozawa's party to submit a no confidence motion against Noda and his Cabinet and that some insiders are suggesting that former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, a close supporter of Ozawa and fellow anti-tax advocate, may be key to tipping this balance, he added.

Hatoyama, currently suspended from the ruling party for voting against the tax hike, has his own sizable intraparty following and himself has become a more vocal critic of Noda's tax hike obsession.

"Hatoyama's support would be the nail in Noda's coffin. Hatoyama held sway over the second-largest intraparty DPJ faction after Ozawa's and if they decided that an election was in their best interests, or if Ozawa could convince them, external parties and independents that there's a bigger picture at play, we could see an election as early as autumn," Imori said.

Some pundits say Ozawa himself is facing an uphill battle, as with a skeptical public to contend with and so many novice lawmakers on his team, reelections may be an impossibility.

But with the irrepressible Ozawa also doubling up as his party' s election committee head, Kenji Yamaoka, former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, taking on the role of acting head of the party, Shozo Azuma, former senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office, assuming the role as the party's secretary general and Katsumasa Suzuki, former state secretary for internal affairs and communications, named Diet affairs chief, the party's upper echelons already boast political pedigree and, more importantly, enough political reach, not to be scoffed at.

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