Former Democratic Party of Japan leaders Katsuya Okada and Yukio Hatoyama emerged Tuesday as the most likely replacements for President Ichiro Ozawa ahead of the pivotal general election later this year.
Ozawa, who announced his resignation Monday, leaves the biggest opposition party groping for momentum after an unusually timed fundraising scandal left his top aide in jail.
Now the party must scramble to find a candidate strong enough to challenge Prime Minister Taro Aso and the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition for power.
The DPJ will elect Ozawa’s successor on Saturday.
DPJ Vice President Katsuya Okada, 55, is considered the most prominent candidate. Known for his serious demeanor, Okada was relatively popular with voters and helped the DPJ win 50 seats in the Upper House election in 2004.
Some in the party are reportedly reluctant to support Okada because of the beating the DPJ took at the hands of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s media-savvy ruling coalition in the 2005 Lower House election.
Okada resigned as party president after that setback, but he is getting some backing now because he has a clean image that would be an asset in wiping away the taint left by Ozawa’s scandal over potentially illegal contributions from Nishimatsu Construction Co.
A former trade ministry bureaucrat, Okada has long been dubbed a “policy fundamentalist” because he is believed to be interested only in policy and rigidly observes party rules.
Okada has stressed the importance of education and the need for a free and fair society. He has also said Japan needs to accept foreigners to promote social diversity and visited the United States in December to meet aides of President Barack Obama to push for stronger steps against global warming.
A son of a supermarket magnate, Okada joined the trade ministry in 1976 and studied at Harvard University for a year in 1985. He entered the Lower House in 1990.
Okada initially joined the LDP but left in 1993 to follow Ozawa, a key LDP leader at the time who left to form the opposition party Shinseito, which later became Shinshinto in 1994.
When Shinshinto was disbanded in 1997, Okada criticized Ozawa and left to join another minor party that would eventually be absorbed by the DPJ.
Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned as DPJ secretary general along with Ozawa on Monday, is said to be the next most viable candidate. He has been praised for his work as secretary general over the past 4 1/2 years for bringing the party together.
Some reports say that a group consisting of Ozawa followers and other groups is expected to root for Hatoyama if he runs. But others say Hatoyama would be making a mistake by entering the race because he is partially responsible for supporting Ozawa’s decision to stay on as president and ride out the Nishimatsu storm.
Hatoyama founded the precursor to the DPJ in 1996 with his younger brother, Kunio, the current internal affairs minister, and Deputy DPJ President Naoto Kan, among others.
He assumed the copresidency along with Kan when the DPJ was founded. In 1999 he became president again and held the post for three years until party members abandoned him for trying to merge the DPJ with Ozawa’s now-defunct Liberal Party.
Hatoyama’s grandfather was Ichiro Hatoyama, a prime minister and the first LDP president. After graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Tokyo, he was an assistant professor at Sensyu University before turning to politics. He entered the Lower House in 1986.
Other than Okada and Hatoyama, former DPJ President Kan and former Diet affairs chief Yoshihiko Noda are considered outside candidates.
Because all three have resigned party posts at one time or another for various failures, some have argued it is time for a fresh face to lead the party. But political observers have said that given the looming Lower House election, this is no time for junior party members to come to the fore.
“It is true that there are not many members with strong leadership qualities. And when you think of who has enough popularity to become the face of the party for the election, the choices are limited,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.