Ozawa Return Splits Ruling DPJ
Prime Minister Noda's Position Imperiled After Rival Exonerated

Ichiro Ozawa's exoneration spells trouble for Prime Minister Yushohiko Noda and his tax hike proposal.

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Amiel Ungar,

Ozawa Is Back
Ozawa Is Back

One would expect a party to rejoice when one of its heavyweights is exonerated at the end of a trial. This is particularly the case when the charges involve illegal political fundraising.

But there was far from unanimous jubilation in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the non-guilty verdict for Ichiro Ozawa, the man credited with engineering the party's breakthrough victory. Yoshiko Noda, the prime minister, commented on Thursday  that he would "take [Ozawa's acquittal] as a legal judgment."

One could understand the lack of enthusiasm expressed by the Prime Minister as Ozawa, forced to resign as party leader in May 2009 once he was charged, announced before the verdict was in that he was going to bring down Noda - in order to get the party in shape for elections to the lower house in a year and a half's time. "There is still a year and a half left (in the current lower house term)," he said. "We should return to being the DPJ as it originally was."

As a result of the verdict, members of Ozawa's faction were quick to demand that Ozawa be reinstated in a position of leadership, although the prosecutors have not yet decided whether to appeal the verdict.

Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said "I want the party to quickly allow the former president to get back to work."

Another ally, DPJ House of Representatives member Tetsuhisa Matsuzaki, said, "The party should let [Ozawa] regain an executive post as soon as possible and return to the starting point when the DPJ took power, placing the former president at the party's center."

If Ozawa is back in the party's center, he will strenuously oppose Noda's signature economic policy of raising the consumption tax in order to bring down the deficit.

The proposal is not very popular in Japan, given the country's emergence from the havoc wrought by the earthquake and tsunami last year. Ozawa's expected comeback now gives the DPJ forces who are opposed to the tax hike a recognized leader. Noda would find it difficult to give in, as he made the tax hike pledge at a summit meeting of the G 20.

The Liberal Democratic Party, in opposition, is savoring the prospect of a major fight within the DPJ, although it too is divided over fiscal policy and is equally rent by factionalism. However, since the LDP is in opposition, the focus on these shortcomings will be concentrated on the DPJ.