A power broker in Japan breaks back into power

Politician who helped bring down ruling party joins it in a coalition trying to fix economy

Ichiro Ozawa was once the bad boy of Japanese politics, the guy who threatened to break down the old system and build something new.

These days he's back in the fold. Last week Mr. Ozawa and his Liberal Party signed a coalition agreement with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party - the very same group Ozawa abandoned in 1993.

The support of the Liberals will give the LDP added firepower in the agenda-setting lower house of Japan's parliament, where it already holds a majority. And it brings the ruling party to within 11 votes of a majority in the upper house.

That strength will make setting economic policy and passing next year's budget easier, adding longevity to the administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. But some analysts don't see it as a sign of stability, but an indication of the fragility of Japan's political establishment.

Ronald Morse, a professor of business and economics at Reitaku University just outside Tokyo, notes that Ozawa's track record hasn't been too great in recent years. Once considered a master behind-the-scenes strategist, the alliances he has formed since 1993 have fractured. The parties he has led have suffered at the polls.

KUNIKO Inoguchi, a politics professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, calls Ozawa's return a "back to the future" scenario. "What were they doing," she wonders of the Liberal Party and its predecessors, "during the last five years when voters were given the hope of a two-party system?"

Ozawa left the LDP saying he wanted to bring some ideological coherence to Japan's politics, which have long turned more on personality than policy. The LDP is a collection of factions and interest-group representatives whose cohesion has everything to do with staying in power and little to do with shared political ideas.

The defection of Ozawa and others did result in the 1993 defeat of the LDP, but not for long. Since mid-1994, the LDP has been part of ruling coalitions or managed to govern alone. In the meantime, Ozawa failed to group politicians together along policy lines and the LDP has remained as ideologically inconsistent as it has always been.

Some LDP members worry that Ozawa remains true to his agenda and is entering into a coalition in order to fracture the party from within. But even those most opposed to Ozawa won't jump ship, says one upper house member, who requested anonymity. "I don't think they'll leave the LDP because this will only benefit Ozawa. His real purpose is to divide the LDP into several groups."

Morse doesn't predict that the LDP will fracture along policy lines, but that the nation's dire economic situation will force voters to turn elsewhere. So far, the LDP has relied on traditional policies to lift the country out of a decade of economic stagnation; it has poured money into public works and other stimulus projects.

This strategy has the important benefit of helping the party's key constituencies: the agricultural and construction industries. Just a week ago, the party unveiled a $196 billion package, which many economists dismissed as more of the same.

Despite these infusions of cash, the recession is starting to hit home here. Unemployment is rising, economic anxiety abounds, and retailers and service-providers are scrambling to keep consumers interested. The old social contract, in which a majority of voters backed the LDP in exchange for economic egalitarianism and stability, is already looking crumpled and frayed.

If the party's "muddling through" tactics fail, the greatest beneficiary could be the Democratic Party of Japan, currently the largest opposition party. This group did well in upper house elections this summer, but its leader, Naoto Kan, has recently had to deny scandal accusations that make him look more like an old-school politico than a reformer.

"In the long term," says Ms. Inoguchi, Ozawa's return to the LDP fold "could be good for the DPJ."

Morse adds that it may be a waste of time to look for the emergence of ideologically coherence in Japan's politics. "The whole agenda is being driven by the decline of the economy."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.