Ozawa to challenge Kan for DPJ helm

Kingpin amasses backers, gets Hatoyama's nod

by Masami Ito

Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa broke his silence Thursday to announce he will run against Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the ruling DPJ’s Sept. 14 presidential election, raising the possibility of a third prime minister in a year if he wins.

After much speculation, Ozawa met with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama Thursday morning and announced his decision to run in the poll, the winner of which, as party president, will also presumably become prime minister. After the meeting, Ozawa told reporters he decided to run after receiving Hatoyama’s backing.

“Former Prime Minister Hatoyama said that he would fully cooperate and back me up if I decided to run in the presidential election,” Ozawa said. “Therefore, I have just come to the decision to run.”

Separately, Hatoyama told reporters Thursday morning that he would back Ozawa. The former prime minister explained that he had been the one to invite Ozawa and his Liberal Party to merge into the DPJ back in 2003.

“Considering that it was at my invitation that Ozawa joined the DPJ, I think that it is justifiable for me to support him,” Hatoyama said.

Hatoyama had been acting as a go-between, trying to prevent a head-on collision between Kan and Ozawa that would split the party in two. Hatoyama had voiced his support for Kan earlier this week, but apparently changed his mind after meeting with Kan on Wednesday and only receiving a vague response when he urged the prime minister to “sincerely seek” Ozawa’s cooperation.

“I said (I support Kan) in the natural sense that I was backing him up as a Diet member of the DPJ,” Hatoyama said.

Meanwhile, Kan said during a meeting with the party’s first-term lawmakers Thursday morning that he welcomed Ozawa’s bid and promised a clean fight.

“We shall fight fair and square, and the winner will become the prime minister and head of the party,” Kan said. “If re-elected, I will devote every second to my job as the prime minister and the party’s leader.”

It remains unclear how much support Ozawa, who just stepped down as DPJ secretary general over a political funds scandal, can garner from his party members and supporters. The next couple of weeks will likely see a fierce battle between his and Kan’s allies.

Campaigning for the race will begin Sept. 1. Voters consist of 412 DPJ lawmakers, 2,382 local assembly members and about 350,000 party members.

According to Kyodo News, Kan has around 120 supporters among DPJ Diet members — about 50 from his own group, 40 from transport minister Seiji Maehara’s faction and 30 from Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s supporters. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, who does not belong to a faction, has also voiced his support for Kan.

Meanwhile, Ozawa has a great deal of strength, with about 150 in his faction alone. The group led by Hatoyama, the second-largest in the DPJ, has about 60, bringing the total to around 210.

Other factions include the estimated 30 members of the former Democratic Socialist Party and about 30 members of the ex-Social Democratic Party of Japan, neither of which have decided whom to support.

Unlike the Liberal Democratic Party’s factions, however, these DPJ groups are not as strongly bound and their votes are likely to be fluid.

The reaction among DPJ lawmakers was mixed. Some are confident Ozawa will win and others are concerned the party will be divided.

“I hope that the candidates will fight a fair presidential election and after that, I would like the DPJ to come together as a whole and cooperate one and all,” said Environment Minister Sakihito Ozawa.