Kan front-runner to replace Hatoyama

Key DPJ figures assured Ozawa will be kept at bay

by Alex Martin

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Naoto Kan is expected to win the Democratic Party of Japan presidency, get voted in by the Diet as prime minister, then form a new Cabinet — all on Friday.

Kan, 63, the front-runner to replace Yukio Hatoyama, who abruptly resigned as prime minister and DPJ president Wednesday, and the ruling party have little time to prepare for the Upper House election expected on July 11.

DPJ heavyweights have voiced their support for Kan, virtually assuring he will win Friday’s party presidential election, and the subsequent Diet vote for prime minister.

One key issue is whether Ichiro Ozawa, the departing DPJ secretary general dubbed the “shadow shogun” for his influence behind the scenes, will exercise that power over party members during the presidential race.

Kan indicated at a news conference Thursday that if elected DPJ president, he will not appoint Ozawa to any key position in the party or government, saying Ozawa “was in a way responsible for the public distrust in politics.”

Both Ozawa and Hatoyama were hit hard by political funds scandals that pushed down the DPJ’s approval ratings in media polls and eventually contributed to Hatoyama’s decision to step down.

“I think (Ozawa) should stay quiet for the time being” for the sake of national politics and for himself, Kan said.

Even as it becomes increasingly likely Kan will nail the top spot, DPJ Lower House lawmaker Shinji Tarutoko, who chairs the Lower House Environment Committee, said he will run against him.

Tarutoko, 50, is expected to be backed by lawmakers relatively close to Ozawa, who heads an intraparty group of about 150 lawmakers.

Kan indicated to reporters there would be no drastic change in foreign policy if he becomes prime minister, saying he will emphasize Japan’s ties with the United States, China and other parts of Asia.

He also said he will especially focus on job creation in day care services for children and the elderly, saying jobs are key for economic growth.

At a separate news conference Thursday, Tarutoko said the main aim of his candidacy was to bring young lawmakers to the forefront of politics.

“I want to create a wave of generational changes,” he said. He also pledged, if chosen as prime minister, to try to reduce the number of Lower House lawmakers by 80 as part of administrative reforms.

Tarutoko has no experience as a party executive or Cabinet member, while Kan has been DPJ president, finance minister and health minister.

Asked about his lack of experience as a political leader, Tarutoko said it is up to the Diet members to decide.

Earlier in the day, Kan held talks with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and sought his support.

Okada, who unsuccessfully ran against Hatoyama for the party presidency in May 2009, said he agreed not to run on condition that the new leader neutralize Ozawa and keep him off any important posts.

“The prime minister is a supreme leader of both the government and the ruling party. A dual power structure is undesirable in light of democratic principles,” Okada said.

Transport minister Seiji Maehara, who along with Kan and Okada has been party president in the past, also said Thursday he intends to support Kan, rather than run against him.

And Senior Vice Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who leads an intraparty group critical of Ozawa, also told reporters his group will back Kan.

Government revitalization minister Yukio Edano, whose name had earlier been floated as a possible candidate, also expressed his support for Kan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Hatoyama’s Cabinet will resign en masse Friday morning.

The DPJ planned to host a general meeting of party lawmakers at 11 a.m. Friday to elect its new chief. The new leader will later be voted in prime minister at the Diet, where the DPJ holds a strong majority in the Lower House.

The new Cabinet is expected to be formed in the afternoon. But with little time remaining before the Diet session wraps up, it is unknown if a major reshuffle of ministerial posts will take place.

The new prime minister will deliver his policy speech Monday, and field questions from representatives of the ruling and opposition camps beginning Wednesday.

Kan, a cofounder of the DPJ who has headed it twice since its establishment in 1998, became famous in 1996 when as health minister he took on his ministry’s bureaucrats over the scandal involving HIV-tainted blood and the thousands of hemophiliacs who became infected.

As the Hatoyama Cabinet’s second finance minister after the resignation of Hirohisa Fujii, Kan made headlines when he indicated the government was ready to increase taxes to reduce the snowballing public debt.

A policy buff and central figure in the DPJ’s efforts to centralize policymaking in the Cabinet instead of the bureaucracy, Kan will be the first nonhereditary prime minister, if elected, since LDP lawmaker Yoshiro Mori in 2000.

The DPJ took the country’s helm last September in a historic shift of power following its landslide victory in the August general election. But Hatoyama will step down after only eight months in office.

During a speech Wednesday to lawmakers in which he announced his exit, he cited dwindling public support triggered by his failure to resolve a dispute over the relocation of the U.S. Futenma air base and money scandals as reasons for his decision.

On Wednesday, Kan said the Hatoyama government “did not have sufficient time to fulfill what the people expected from the DPJ.” He added that he is ready to “take over and carry out” the task.

Given Kan’s role in the Hatoyama Cabinet, there is opposition within the DPJ, especially among younger ranks, to letting him lead the campaign for the Upper House poll at a time when the party needs an overhaul to restore public support.