Maehara, the favorite, declares candidacy

Trouble from Ozawa not expected; Kan to announce resignation Friday

by Alex Martin and Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writers

Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara declared his candidacy Tuesday for next week’s Democratic Party of Japan presidential election to pick the successor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who meanwhile spent the day bidding a premature farewell to his Cabinet.

“We have to change the government to give the people hope and a sense of security for the future,” Maehara told a meeting of lawmakers who support him.

“Let me take the lead in creating a new Japan that can encourage the disaster-hit districts with your cooperation,” he said.

The country needs to tackle the reconstruction in the quake zone, shift to new energy sources and handle the nuclear crisis, he added.

Maehara said after the meeting with his supporters that the DPJ should maintain the suspension of former party leader Ichiro Ozawa, which some of the other candidates say should be lifted.

As for Maehara’s own scandal of accepting donations from a foreign national, he said he will soon hold a news conference on the matter.

Kan, who is expected to announce his resignation Friday, told his ministers he hopes to see his successor in office, and himself officially out, on Aug. 30 after two key bills clear the Diet by the end of this week, meeting his preconditions for stepping down.

Maehara met Tuesday with Kyocera Corp. founder Kazuo Inamori, who has been a strong supporter of the DPJ, and told him he had decided to run.

Kan told his Cabinet in the morning he would step down once the last two of three bills were passed. One authorizes bond issuances and the other promotes renewable energy. The third bill, the second extra budget, was passed in July.

Campaigning for the Monday DPJ presidential poll will kick off Saturday.

But because time is short, the crowded field of candidates — tentatively six — will not have enough time to delve into serious policy debates. Thus the focus is expected to be more about which one has the best chance of uniting the DPJ and working with the opposition camp, said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.

“The whole point of the race is to replace Kan, who has been criticized for his lack of leadership and inability to work with the opposition,” he said.

Despite mounting criticism against Kan, none of the candidates in the DPJ race nor executives of the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, has floated any grand policy alternatives for rebuilding disaster-stricken Japan.

“The race will be about intraparty power balances. Tax hikes and other issues will be put on the back burner,” Iwai said.

Because the election is taking place during a sitting president’s term, only Diet members of the DPJ will be allowed to vote, leaving ordinary party members out of the loop. The new leader will become prime minister by virtue of the DPJ’s majority in the Lower House.

So far Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, farm minister Michihiko Kano, trade minister Banri Kaieda, former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi and ex-Environment Minister Sakihito Ozawa have indicated they plan to run.

But Maehara, by far the most popular of the candidates despite stepping down as foreign minister in March over his political donation scandal, is considered a strong contender to succeed Kan. Noda and Kaieda said separately Tuesday they still intend to run.

Maehara has signaled an interest in forming a temporary grand coalition with the LDP and New Komeito to overcome the divided Diet, and has ruled out an unpopular tax hike as a means to cover the costs of post-March 11 reconstruction.

Noda, who had hoped for Maehara’s backing, had called for tax hikes but has toned this stance down of late.

And while media have been speculating whether disgraced DPJ kingpin Ozawa, who controls the party’s largest faction, would throw his support behind one of the candidates, analysts said Maehara’s entry will effectively keep the don from backing a rival candidate and stirring the pot.

Ozawa, a former DPJ leader who helped the party rise to power in 2009, cannot run because his party membership was suspended after he was indicted in a political money scandal.

Maehara, an Ozawa critic, has kept his distance from the veteran politician.

“If an Ozawa-backed candidate other than Maehara wins the DPJ election and becomes prime minister, the opposition will slam him as being Ozawa’s puppet — Diet deliberations will freeze, and the DPJ may be forced to call a snap election,” Iwai said.

Maehara, considering his popularity, would be the most adequate choice to lead the party, Iwai said, adding that Ozawa will try to get on good terms with him to maintain his clout in the DPJ.

Information from Kyodo added