As Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Democratic Party of Japan kingpin Ichiro Ozawa battle toward their showdown Tuesday, observers are criticizing them for creating a political void in the ruling party at a time when Japan is struggling to rekindle the economy and address other pressing issues.
The DPJ will have difficulty passing legislation after being stripped of its Upper House majority two months ago, and the battle between the two heavyweights is likely to create serious rifts in the party.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, analysts say the outlook for the DPJ is grim because the party will need to form alliances with opposition parties and govern under increasing pressure from a public tired of power games and hungry for solutions to the nation’s troubles.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, described the DPJ’s internal bickering as “a tempest in a teapot” and said that unless its public support soars and the next leader finds a way to break the gridlock, the DPJ will be in a tight spot.
“Even after the storm subsides, the harsh climate outside the pot will remain,” he said.
Kan still has a slight lead on Ozawa, according to public surveys, but the race will be an internal battle to win 1,222 points. Each of the DPJ’s 411 Diet members get a vote worth two points, giving them 822 points, with 100 coming from the 2,382 local assembly members, and another 300 from its 342,493 general members.
Ozawa is seen as having a slight advantage among national lawmakers, but because Kan apparently trumps him everywhere else, he is seen as the front-runner.
Even if Kan emerges as the victor, however, analysts say it will take more than calls for “clean politics” to eradicate Ozawa from the party, considering the veteran power broker’s large following and influence.
Nicknamed the “destroyer” for making and breaking parties during his four-decade career, some suspect Ozawa might try to persuade his allies to ditch the party if he loses. But pundits agree that such a scenario is unlikely for now.
Satoru Matsubara, a political science professor at Toyo University, said Ozawa would probably stay in the party whether Kan wins big or small because there aren’t any clear prospects for political realignment in sight.
“Besides, leaving because he lost the race is too childish a reason,” Matsubara said.
What Kan is likely to do if he wins is grant important Cabinet or party posts to close Ozawa allies so he can diffuse the situation and appeal for party unity, Matsubara said.
While Ozawa may stay quiet for now, analysts say he may flex his political muscle if the Cabinet’s support rate sags and he fails to get the opposition to cooperate on debating and enacting legislation.
Matsubara predicted that at that point, Ozawa may take the initiative and attempt a political realignment, possibly teaming up with the DPJ’s nemesis, the Liberal Democratic Party.
On the other hand, Ozawa promised at a news conference Wednesday that if he is elected DPJ president and thus prime minister, he will grant Kan, as well as former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and DPJ Upper House caucus Chairman Azuma Koshiishi, important Cabinet and party posts.
Kan made a similar statement earlier in the week. But despite Ozawa’s appeal for unity, Sophia University’s Nakano said Kan’s camp will be bitterly disappointed if Ozawa wins, although it is unlikely any of them will leave the party.
“Compared with Ozawa, those in Kan’s camp are inept at making bold moves in times of political turmoil, and without clear prospects of what to do, leaving the ruling party would be highly risky,” he said.
Matsubara of Toyo University said that if Ozawa becomes prime minister, he would expect him to approach an opposition party with a large presence, possibly New Komeito, to restore the DPJ’s majority in the Upper House.
Victory or no, Ozawa will still faces distractions if an independent judicial panel reviewing his political funding troubles concludes there are good reasons to believe a conspiracy existed between Ozawa and his aides and thus merits indictment.
While the Constitution stipulates that a Cabinet member can’t be indicted without the consent of the prime minister, Ozawa has so far said he would agree to face trial if is indicted.
Despite those head winds, Jun Saito, a former DPJ lawmaker who said he was part of Kan’s group but now is an associate professor of political science at Yale University, said many in the DPJ will be tempted to vote for Ozawa.
Saito said he doesn’t think Ozawa violated campaign regulations or misuse campaign funds for private gains, and that the way both prosecutors and the media handled his case has been distasteful.
“I am, at least in part, sympathetic to Mr. Ozawa for this reason,” Saito said.
Saito also said that if he were in the position to do so, he would be tempted to cast a protest vote against Kan for his mishandling of the economy.
“I had admired Mr. Kan’s capability as a lawmaker and as a former minister of welfare, who led the bureaucracy to admit its mistakes regarding the mishandling of HIV-virus infected drugs,” Saito said.
“But this time, he seems to have been brainwashed by the wrong economic policy team, which is obsessed with the wrong economic ideology . . . I am afraid that his policy team might be killing the vitality of the Japanese economy,” he said.