Speculation is rife that former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his followers will form a new party, and whether he stays in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan could determine the future of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government.
The DPJ has already lost 49 lawmakers to Ichiro Ozawa's new Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People's Life First) and Noda is barely maintaining a majority in the Lower House. If 16 or more lawmakers follow Ozawa's lead, the DPJ-Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) coalition would fall from power.
Hatoyama denied media reports Friday that he could leave the DPJ over his opposition to the consumption tax hike and launch a new party, saying they are "groundless."
Hatoyama's recent actions have drawn much attention. At the end of last month, he joined former agriculture minister Masahiko Yamada and others in rejecting the tax bill but stayed in the DPJ.
But Hatoyama, whose party membership is suspended for three months due to his vote against the tax rise, has been holding regular study groups with fellow tax hike opponents within the DPJ and is refusing to toe the line on Noda's tax agenda. The group consists of 20 to 30 DPJ members in both Diet chambers.
"We must put a stop to the current (government), which is going out of control," Hatoyama said during a meeting of the group Friday morning.
He and Ozawa are close allies, but pundits say Hatoyama would face a very difficult battle in the next general election if he were to leave the DPJ.
Noda stated Thursday that he would include the tax hike in the next DPJ campaign platform and those who oppose it would not be backed as official DPJ candidates in the next election. But he was later forced to water down his statement after facing harsh resentment from tax hike dissenters.
On Friday morning, Noda said he was talking about "a general view" that DPJ-backed candidates should support the party's platform. The leader added that the selection process for candidates won't be up to him alone.
"The DPJ will hold a wide range of discussions on the manifesto for the next election and we must come up with a policy platform that . . . will be backed by everyone in the party," Noda told an Upper House plenary session. "As for candidacies, the decision must be made by myself as well as the secretary general, the campaign manager and the rest of the DPJ leadership, and the local branches nationwide."