Whatever other motivations may have been in play, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s recent reshuffle of his Cabinet was surely intended to raise the low support rate for his Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition in anticipation of the next general election.
The next move may be by the ruling bloc’s key rival, the Democratic Party of Japan.
The largest opposition force will choose its next president at an extraordinary party convention on Sept. 21 as the two-year term of the current leader, Ichiro Ozawa, expires.
Looking to build on its landslide victory in the July 2007 House of Councilors election, the party’s chances in the next general election, which must be held by September 2009, are largely considered dependent on its leader.
“This presidential race of the DPJ is, in a sense, also an election to decide the next prime minister,” DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said last month when the party announced details of the upcoming party convention.
A survey conducted by Kyodo News immediately after the Aug. 1 Cabinet reshuffle showed that the support rate for Fukuda’s new Cabinet was up only 4.7 points to 31.5 percent from the previous survey in July.
When asked which party they supported, 28.7 percent of the pollees said the LDP, with 30.2 percent backing the DPJ. Other media polls also show little difference in support rates. Some observers say the DPJ finally has a real chance to come out on top in the next general election.
While Ozawa has yet to make any formal announcement, many speculate he will be re-elected and lead the DPJ in the next general election.
The question is whether to simply use the convention to promote Ozawa or as an occasion to have clear-cut debate about party policies. While many believe Ozawa should run unopposed as a gesture of party solidarity, others within the DPJ argue that running candidates against him presents an opportunity to discuss policies publicly.
Under DPJ rules, a Diet member from either house who receives more than 20 official recommendations from fellow lawmakers can run in the leadership race. If there is more than one candidate, the winner will be selected in a vote by Diet members and some 269,000 registered DPJ party members nationwide.
Many in the DPJ believe Ozawa is the strongest candidate for the position, largely because he led the party to victory in the Upper House poll last year, and was in charge when a DPJ candidate won the Lower House by-election in the No. 2 constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture in April and others cinched the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election in June.
And Ozawa himself sounds like he’s up for the challenge.
“The next general election is the last chance for a regime change,” Ozawa said at a DPJ fundraiser in mid-July. “I’m going to do everything I can to realize this historic mission.”
Currently traveling around Japan visiting supporters and encouraging DPJ candidates to prepare for the general election, Ozawa said he will decide whether to run after the Bon holiday in mid-August.
But not all DPJ members favor Ozawa, who tried to join hands with Fukuda in November to form a grand coalition without his party’s consent. Like some DPJ members, Ozawa once hailed from the conservative LDP, but others came from other camps.
Some DPJ lawmakers, including Vice President Seiji Maehara, have repeatedly said they believe someone should run against Ozawa if only to allow the party to openly discuss its policy goals.
Under Ozawa, the DPJ in last summer’s Upper House election campaign issued many promises under its platform, which it called its manifesto, including a pledge to provide financial support to protect small-scale farmers and households with small children.
Ozawa has stressed, without getting into specifics, that administrative reform will generate the necessary finances to achieve these goals, but he opposes hiking the 5 percent consumption tax, which some quarters say is the best way to fund the rising social security costs. But a sales tax hike would sour voters, as the LDP knows all too well.
Maehara, a former DPJ president, wrote in the July issue of the monthly magazine Voice that simply carrying out administrative reforms according to Ozawa’s wishes won’t generate the necessary ¥15.3 trillion the party believes is needed to achieve its policy goals.
Maehara also questioned Ozawa’s foreign policy centering on the United Nations, arguing that simply abiding by U.N. resolutions, as opposed to agreements with the United States, its key ally, will narrow the options for Japan.
“It’s not about whether we like Ozawa or not. We have chosen him as our leader without voting, and I don’t mean to say he is all wrong,” Maehara wrote. “It’s all about policies. At the presidential election in September, we must have thorough debate on our policies and let the public know what kind of policies a DPJ-led government would pursue.”
Maehara himself has not expressed any willingness to run for the seat, but others, including former Policy Research Council chief Yukio Edano and former Diet Affairs chief Yoshihiko Noda, who both support the idea of using the presidential poll as an occasion for policy discussion, are reportedly interested in running.
Former DPJ President Katsuya Okada, who was also seen as a potential candidate, recently hinted he was not considering a run.
Hokkaido University professor Jiro Yamaguchi believes Ozawa should just be reinstalled without a vote. If the DPJ wants to win the next general election, he said, it should not run the risk of giving the impression that some forces within the party oppose Ozawa, even if this is true. Discussing how to change Japan is important, but the party can address revenues after taking power.
“The most important thing is to maintain unity,” he said. “This is no time for a ‘healthy debate’ and to discuss who the best leader is if they really want to beat the LDP.”
Party executives, including Hatoyama and Deputy President Naoto Kan, have already come out behind Ozawa.
“Generally speaking, I think it’s fine that someone raises their hand and we have an election,” Kan told reporters at the end of July. But he added that he feels having Ozawa at the helm during the next general election would offer the best chance for the DPJ to become the ruling party.
“I’m going to stand by that thought,” he said. “And my mind won’t change regardless of who is running.”
Although no one has stepped forward to run against Ozawa, Takeshi Sasaki, a professor at Gakushuin University, said he would like to see a rival candidate emerge so a vote will be held and policies discussed before the public.
“We now know what the DPJ can do as an opposition force, but we still need to know if it is really capable of running the government,” Sasaki said. “For that matter, the DPJ should have an election and show the public what it plan to do.
“The DPJ presidential election is effectively an opportunity to show its manifesto,” he said.
Despite holding different views about the presidential election, both Sasaki and Yamaguchi of Hokkaido University agree the DPJ should utilize the party convention to appeal to voters.
“For running the government, presentation is a very important talent,” Sasaki said. “The party shouldn’t squander a chance to show what it can do.”
If Ozawa is the sole candidate, Yamaguchi said the DPJ as well as Ozawa himself should be persuasive if they want to win the hearts of voters.
“It’s too much to expect from Ozawa an impressive speech like the one that (U.S. Democratic presidential candidate) Barack Obama made . . . but the DPJ shouldn’t just end the convention by clapping hands (to signal) Ozawa (has been reinstalled),” Yamaguchi said. “They need to learn from the American party conventions.”