Rookies hold crucial DPJ votes

As leadership race enters final stretch, first-term lawmakers emerge as kingmakers

by Kanako Takahara

Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Katsuhito Yokokume gets at least 10 calls on his cell phone every day from the Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa camps, asking for his support in Tuesday’s party presidential election.

“I don’t recognize some of the phone numbers that are appearing on my screen . . . so they must have a list of cell phone numbers they are calling,” said Yokokume, who has yet to decide who he will vote for.

There is a big spotlight on rookie DPJ lawmakers like the 29-year-old Yokokume because they could be casting the crucial votes in the race to elect the party’s leader and effectively the prime minister.

The DPJ’s internal election system is heavily weighted toward its 411 Diet members. Each gets a vote worth two points, meaning they will account for 822 of the 1,222 total points. Of the party’s lawmakers, 155 — 38 percent — are rookies who came in last year in the Lower House election or the Upper House election two months ago.

Regional assembly members are allocated 100 points and rank-and-file members will get 300 points. With opinion polls showing a strong public preference to keep Kan as prime minister, he is expected to beat out Ozawa among the rank and file.

Both camps established their headquarters in hotels near the Nagata-cho political district, working the phones and crunching the numbers.

As the two heavyweights clash head-on, the race is too close to call.

“Rookie lawmakers tend to be swayed by the opinion of voters in their districts and other people,” which makes it harder to predict how they will vote, political commentator Hirotada Asakawa said. “Both have an equal chance to win.”

So far, 180 DPJ lawmakers are siding with Ozawa and 165 with Kan, by Asakawa’s estimate. This means the race is boiling down to the remaining 70 or so who have yet to choose sides, he said.

“To tell you the truth, I can’t make up my mind,” said Yokokume.

He sympathizes with Kan’s goal of conducting clean and open politics but is skeptical of his political leadership. At the same time Yokokume worries that while power broker Ozawa may have the political leadership skills to ram through his policies, he lacks public support.

“The reason (former Prime Minister) Junichiro Koizumi was able to carry out his policies was because he had high public support,” Yokokume said. “Even if Mr. Ozawa has strong leadership, he can’t ignore the public.”

Yokokume was defeated last year in Koizumi’s Kanagawa district by the former prime minister’s son, Shinjiro, but got a Diet seat through proportional representation.

As the campaign enters its final stage, more DPJ lawmakers are making public who they will support.

Naoto Sakaguchi, a former nongovernmental organization worker elected last year, has decided to vote for Kan, figuring rookie politicians will be able to debate policy more freely and actively under his reign.

“There are many rookie lawmakers with a great deal of expertise, but they weren’t able to fully utilize their talent” when Ozawa was DPJ secretary general, Sakaguchi said.

He was referring to the incident in which Ozawa refused to allow first-year members to participate in screening government-backed projects for waste on the grounds they weren’t ready for it, and because he wanted them concentrating on their home districts and thanking supporters.

“The DPJ had been a party that could hold discussions freely, including rookie lawmakers,” Sakaguchi said. “After Kan became the party leader, that trend was revived.”

But some lawmakers, especially those who won a tight race in the July Upper House election and the general election in August 2009, when Ozawa served as secretary general, find it difficult to part with Ozawa.

Some of those lawmakers received 10 times as much money for campaigning from the party under Ozawa’s instruction, said a DPJ source who asked not to be named, adding that they tend to be loyal to the party kingpin.

Mieko Tanaka, one of the “Ozawa girls” handpicked to run last year by the party bigwig, acknowledged owing him for teaching her how to campaign but said her decision to vote for him is based on his policy.

“Watching Mr. Kan’s way of drafting the budget for the next fiscal year, I felt it was bureaucrat-initiated,” said Tanaka, referring to the administration’s request for ministries to cut at least 10 percent of their policy-related outlays.

“It should be scrapped and we should start over,” she said. “Strong leadership is necessary for politicians to take the initiative.”

Stressing the need for policymaking based on political leadership, Ozawa has ripped Kan for urging his ministers to reduce their budget requests by 10 percent, accusing him of following the advice of Finance Ministry bureaucrats.

Unlike Tanaka, Shiori Yamao, another lawmaker dubbed an Ozawa girl, decided to part with the party power broker.

“It would be ruinous to the national interest to replace the prime minister in just three months,” said Yamao, a prosecutor before she turned to politics. “There are many voices in my district expressing concern over how it would appear to other countries.”

Yamao was cautious about making harsh remarks against Ozawa, apparently wanting to avoid ill feelings from his supporters.

However, on the possibility Ozawa may face criminal charges, Yamao said: “He has the right to refrain from making remarks that may be used against him. But if he becomes prime minister, he bears the responsibility of full accountability. . . . I wonder how he would handle it.”

Yamao acknowledged she gets calls from the Ozawa camp criticizing her for going with Kan despite the campaign support she received from Ozawa.

“I will repay the support I received from Ozawa by serving the public as a politician,” she said. “I’m nobody’s ‘girl.’ “