Japan's main opposition party was thrown into disarray yesterday as its leader announced his resignation amid a rift over a proposal to forge a grand coalition with the ruling camp.
Veteran conservative Ichiro Ozawa's surprise announcement came just months after his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) scored a major election victory that handed it control of one house of parliament.
His resignation -- if accepted -- would add to the political confusion in Japan, which is already in the midst of legislative deadlock and could prompt the government to call snap elections, analysts said.
During talks with Ozawa on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda proposed a coalition with his ruling party in a bid to break the legislative stalemate over Japan's refueling support mission for US-led operations in Afghanistan.
The mission, Japan's main role in the US-led "war on terror," was halted last week after the legislation authorizing it expired.
Ozawa initially agreed to consider the coalition proposal but the idea was rejected by party executives.
The burly 65-year-old told a hastily arranged press conference that his party's response was the equivalent of a "vote of no confidence."
Some Japanese media reported it was actually Ozawa, not Fukuda, who proposed a coalition during Friday's meeting.
Ozawa angrily denied that was the case but acknowledged that the proposal had caused "political confusion."
"To take my responsibility, I decided to resign as the representative of the Democratic Party," he said.
Ozawa's party is due to hold an executive meeting today to discuss how to respond to his announcement, amid reports that senior party members are still trying to persuade him to stay on.
His announcement was all the more surprising because it came as the opposition enjoys a resurgence after years on the political sidelines.
"Ozawa's resignation will be a severe blow to the Democratic Party," said Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University.
"His successor will face difficulties to keep the party united. On the other hand, Fukuda [of the Liberal Democratic Party] is likely to take the initiative, including a decision to dissolve the lower house," he said.
The DPJ has been seeking to block key legislation including an extension of the Indian Ocean refueling mission.
Ozawa, ironically a long-time proponent of an active military role for Japan, reportedly told Fukuda on Friday he was ready to support an extension of the mission if the government considered a permanent law to cover the deployment of Japanese troops overseas.
But executives of his party refused to consider the idea, local media said.
Analysts said Ozawa's resignation was unlikely to break the impasse over the Indian Ocean mission.
"The current confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties will remain unchanged," Kato said.
The DPJ was created in 1998 with the merger of four parties and some analysts have been warning since its July election victory that it might break up.