Ozawa, Hatoyama vie to be kingmaker in Kan’s wake

Hopefuls come calling as race to be next DPJ president heats up

Kyodo

Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, facing trial over a political funding report scandal, denounced Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration during a news conference last week aired on the Internet.

“Confidence toward the DPJ has dropped to next to nothing and a defeat in the next Lower House election is inevitable,” Ozawa said.

Although he had kept a relatively low profile since his party membership was suspended over the money scandal and after a failed opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against Kan, “his anger toward the prime minister for staying on at his post,” as one of his aides put it, and the growing speculation that Ozawa may be acquitted are leaving him more free to make provocative remarks.

As groups within the DPJ start floating possible successors to Kan, who has indicated he will step down after his key legislative goals clear the Diet, party members are paying close attention to which DPJ member the Ozawa group will support.

Even though the Ozawa group at about 140 members is the largest in the party, it doesn’t plan to field a candidate from within, apparently because of a lack of a viable choice. But its numbers mean the group will have a big say in picking the next party leader, and that could re-establish Ozawa’s clout as a kingmaker.

Asked who would be the best candidate to succeed Kan, Ozawa said, “Someone who would keep his promise and whom people can place confidence in.

“Anyone except Mr. Kan,” Ozawa joked, triggering giggles from reporters.

One prospective candidate, former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, has made overtures to Ozawa, hoping to gain his support in the yet-to-be-scheduled election to pick the next DPJ president, who would then take the prime ministership.

Mabuchi used to belong to a group headed by Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, but he left the group after he tried but failed to field an unwilling Noda as a candidate for a previous party presidential election. Mabuchi later started preparing to run in the race on his own.

He may have difficulty gaining the required endorsement of 20 lawmakers to run in the presidential race, but it would be a different story if the Ozawa group backs him.

On June 30, Mabuchi, after stepping down as an adviser to Kan, paid a courtesy call on Ozawa.

Last Thursday, he participated in a meeting of junior DPJ lawmakers close to Ozawa, stating his opposition, like the Ozawa group, to any tax hikes.

“It’s like forcing a terminal patient who is about to die to lift a barbell,” Mabuchi, whose hobby is pumping iron, said during the meeting.

Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who also apparently sees himself as a potential kingmaker after Kan exits, is wary of Mabuchi’s overtures to Ozawa.

Hatoyama has been in steady contact with a key member in his faction, trade minister Banri Kaieda, urging him to resign as soon as possible.

“If you resign, I will talk to Mr. Ozawa,” Hatoyama said in one call to Kaieda.

If Kaieda resigns in protest from the administration of Kan, who is often criticized for being arbitrary, his action could draw praise. And if Kaieda wins the next presidential election, Hatoyama would become the de facto kingmaker.

That’s Hatoyama’s scenario.

Meanwhile, former internal affairs minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi also holds out hope of running for the DPJ presidency with Ozawa’s blessing.

Forces opposed to Ozawa are currently waiting on the sidelines.

In another meeting Thursday, many members of the Noda group as well as those allied with former Diet affairs chief Shinji Tarutoko doubted whether Mabuchi could muster the support to run. But no further discussions were held.

LDP ranks want election

An increasing number of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers want their leaders to push Prime Minister Naoto Kan into dissolving the Lower House and calling an election.

LDP members at one time sought to join hands with the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration on condition that Kan stepped down.

But after the LDP’s support rate rose as the Kan administration struggled to cope with the aftermath of the March 11 quake and tsunami and to contain the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, they changed their minds.

More LDP members are reluctant to strike a deal with the DPJ over legislation to allow the issuance of deficit-covering government bonds this fiscal year.

Last week, however, Kan said the next Lower House election, which needs to be held no later than August 2013, should be held on the same day as the Upper House election in that year.

“He doesn’t understand anything,” Ichiro Aisawa, LDP Diet affairs chief, said after Kan made the remark. “What difference does it make for a prime minister who expressed his intention to resign to make comments that far ahead in the future.”

According to the latest Kyodo News survey, the support rate for Kan’s Cabinet plunged to an all-time low of 17.1 percent.

The DPJ’s support rate meanwhile fell to 14.7 percent, while that of the LDP rose to 25.9 percent.

“We could win a Lower House election now,” said an LDP executive.

The LDP wants to avoid the chance of another DPJ president assuming the prime ministership, as it would restore support for the ruling party. The LDP has also found itself short of funds since it lost power to the DPJ in 2009, and thus it hopes to see an early Lower House election.

As the LDP becomes more aggressive in the Diet, it is showing greater reluctance to support the deficit-covering bond bill the DPJ-led ruling bloc desperately needs passed, and probably won’t support it without concessions.

The party is demanding that the DPJ not just scale back the monthly child allowances but also clearly state that it will renege on its other key 2009 campaign promises.

Last week, the DPJ, the LDP and New Komeito agreed to offer monthly child allowances only to families with annual after-tax income of about ¥8.6 million or lower starting in fiscal 2012.

Although the DPJ has already been forced to pare many of its key campaign pledges, officially stating so would be another embarrassment and one the LDP would exploit to demonstrate the ruling party’s waffling.

This would give the LDP further ammunition to press for a voter mandate.

LDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima and other LDP executives have said the party should cooperate with the next DPJ administration in drafting the third supplementary budget, assuming Kan is out, to appeal to disaster-hit areas.

But because Kan continues to remain vague on when he will resign, trust in the administration is faltering.

“What if Kan continues to stay on even after we support the deficit-covering bond bill?” an LDP executive asked. “We may be deceived.”

On Sunday, Kan told close aides he will not resign unless the deficit-covering bond bill clears the Diet.

However, LDP members elected from the Tohoku region are cautious about calling a Lower House election anytime soon.

“There may be voices to promote reconstruction efforts, but none to dissolve the Lower House,” said Itsunori Onodera, an LDP member elected from the No. 6 district in Miyagi Prefecture.

New Komeito, the second-biggest opposition party after the LDP, also wants to avoid an early Lower House election.

In addition to the need to prioritize reconstruction efforts in the disaster-hit regions, Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group that is New Komeito’s biggest backer, wants to avoid “an unexpected general election.”

This explains New Komeito’s softening toward a compromise on passing the deficit-covering bond bill.

The party also hopes to maintain its political influence, including future election timing, by cooperating with the DPJ.

“It’s important for policy chiefs and secretaries general of the DPJ, LDP and New Komeito to hold discussions and come to a conclusion,” Yoshihisa Inoue, New Komeito’s secretary general, said last week.

New Komeito is eager to strike a deal with the DPJ-led ruling bloc over another key Kan goal: a bill to promote the use of renewable energy, looking for its passage by mid-August.

“At present, the Diet should focus on rebuilding the disaster-hit areas and avoid using up its energy on when the prime minister will resign,” New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said.

Although the LDP and New Komeito at present cooperate in Diet tactics, they differ over whether or when to have a Lower House election. This may force the two sides to take separate roads when the Diet session ends at the end of August.