All eyes on potential Maehara election bid

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

With the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election set to pick Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s successor possibly in a week, a key focus has been whether former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara will throw his hat into the ring.

Maehara has reportedly told allies he is willing to run but has not publicly clarified his stance. He was expected to hold talks with his faction Monday and could become the latest to join an already crowded field.

Others hoping to succeed Kan as DPJ president and thus prime minister include Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, farm minister Michihiko Kano, trade minister Banri Kaieda and former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi.

Noda has been viewed as one of the strongest candidates, but if Maehara decides to run, the situation could change dramatically because of his strong public support and the quickly fading backing for Noda, whose calls to raise taxes and form a grand coalition with the top opposition parties is unnerving his allies.

The DPJ decided at its executive meeting Monday to kick off campaigning Saturday and hold the election on Aug. 29, on condition that Kan follows through on his offer to resign Friday after two key bills pass the Diet.

Because the poll is taking place during a sitting president’s term, only Diet members will be allowed to vote. Other members of the party and its supporters will not be able to cast ballots.

One big question mark is whether disgraced DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa will throw his support, and hence that of the party’s largest faction, behind one of the contenders.

“If Maehara decides to run, it would become very difficult for Noda to emerge victorious,” said University of Tokyo professor Masaki Taniguchi.

“Noda’s group is not that big and (his victory would require) the united support of Maehara and his group,” Taniguchi said.

Noda heads an intraparty group of some 30 members, while Maehara’s camp has some 40 members. But many of them overlap, which is a feature of DPJ groupings, unlike the strict factions of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

Maehara has reportedly said it will be difficult for his group to support Noda.

Noda and Maehara are longtime allies, both having graduated from Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a private school that incubates future leaders.

Maehara was originally not expected to run because he had stepped down as foreign minister in March after it was revealed he had received illegal donations from a foreigner — a Korean resident of Japan who goes by a Japanese name. He had been expected to wait until the DPJ’s next regular presidential election, scheduled for September 2012, when the current president’s two-year term ends.

But his allies have been strongly urging him to become the next leader. A recent Kyodo News survey showed that Maehara was by far the most popular candidate for prime minister, with a public support rate of 28 percent, compared with Noda’s 4.8 percent.

Like Noda, Maehara has also shown interest in forming a grand coalition with the LDP and New Komeito for a limited time to overcome the deadlock of the divided Diet and to ensure that reconstruction moves forward.

But Maehara has been cool to any tax hike to cover the costs of post-March 11 reconstruction in the near future, whereas Noda has repeatedly stressed the need to raise levies to rebuild Japan.

According to Kyodo News, one source quoted Maehara as saying, “I cannot accept a tax hike when the economy is in a severe state, given the yen’s appreciation.”

Both Maehara and Noda are known opponents of Ozawa, whose 120-member group is the DPJ’s largest. Ozawa, who goes on trial in October over a political funds scandal, has had his party membership suspended.

Some candidates, including Kaieda, have been trying to woo Ozawa and his loyalists by suggesting they would push for the DPJ to lift the don’s suspension.

The University of Tokyo’s Taniguchi, however, said it would not be easy to win Ozawa’s backing.