Friday, February 18, 2011

What's Eating Ozawa

I've never met Ozawa, I have no background in Japanese politics and I have never studied political science in my life. Take this - and all my political posts - with the consideration it deserves. Caveat lector.

In my previous post, Claire comments on the possibility that Ozawa join forces with one of the new regional parties:

I see what both parties think they could get out of such a tie-up, but it seems like joining up with Ozawa would actually be the kiss of death for someone who's seeking to brand himself as a fresh face.

I don't agree.

Ozawa is an enormously skilled politician. He has a rare ability to take a disparate group and unify them into a well-oiled political machine. Out on the stump he is a master of organizing local efforts to get out the votes and make candidates connect with their voting public. Before Ozawa, the DPJ was a bumbling, ineffectual merger of disparate political groups that were unable to agree on most anything. He, more than anybody else, turned this discussion club into the sharp, unified party that was able to rout the long-time LDP in a general election. The DPJ really is his creation as much as anyones. He has always been - and still is - an enormous asset for any burgeoning political party.

So where does he go wrong? In short, his ambitions do not match his abilities. He wants to become Prime minister, and it is his repeated failed attempts to achieve that position that has been his undoing over the years. It's not that he lacks ability - he is quite possibly the most skilled politician in Japan - but his abilities and his ambitions are misaligned.

Building a political organization and creating an election strategy takes very different skills from being a party leader and prime minister. Ozawa is excellent at the first task; not so much at the second. He is very much like a genius movie director that really rather wants to play the leading role, or the acclaimed conductor that desperately yearns to be the solo violinist.

As long as he is working the back office he is pure gold for any party that has him. But whenever his burning ambition gets the better of him things tend to fall apart. It's not just that he isn't Prime minister material - with the possible exception of Fukuda none of the recent office holders are either - but things go badly because he is such a gifted organizer. Most party members could fight for power without harming their party, but Ozawa can't. He has been a key figure in forging the party into a unified whole, so his power struggles can't but help tearing down that unity again.

A regional party would find Ozawa - his towering skills, his vast national contact networks - almost irresistible. And as long as they can keep a lid on his power ambition he would be an enormous asset. It's telling that the public doesn't resent a party with Ozawa when he is being his organisatorial self. It's only when his ambitions rear their head that the public takes notice. So a regional party may well figure that they can enlist his help for a few years, at which point he may have become too old or frail to continue in politics. Or they may believe that their current political fortunes are better with Ozawa than without, no matter what may happen in the future.

He is called "Ozawa the Destroyer", but what he is mostly destroying is his own impressive legacy, and it is his misplaced ambition that is doing the destruction.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing an entire post to answer my throwaway comment! Yes, Ozawa is an unparalleled political organizer, but he's also widely distrusted by the general public as emblematic of the money politics, factionalism, and naked personal ambition that most people are fed up with in politicians. I take your point that people don't resent his influence so much if he's not in the spotlight, but if he is acting out of an overwhelming desire to be prime minister, he wouldn't be able to play his accustomed back-room role in any new bloc for very long. Given that ambition, what sensible leader would invite him in? Surely none of them would be under the illusion that they could keep him under control indefinitely?

    All in all, I agree with the Nihon University professor quoted in today's Japan Times as saying "Even if they [Ozawa's 16 supporters] leave the DPJ and form a new party, no one would want to join hands with it."

    It'll be interesting to see over the coming months which of us is right.


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