Campaigning for the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election officially kicked off Saturday, with five candidates vying to succeed Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, ex-transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, trade minister Banri Kaieda, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and farm minister Michihiko Kano have just two days to win over the party’s 398 Diet members, who will vote Monday morning.
Because Kan’s two-year term as party president is not slated to end until September 2012, the party’s local assembly members and registered supporters are not allowed to participate in the vote.
The new party chief is expected to be appointed prime minister as early as Tuesday.
There is a possibility that none of the five contenders — a record number since the DPJ was formed in 1998 — will win a majority of the votes. In such an event, the new leader will be decided in a runoff the same day.
While the five lawmakers are running for president, the race is being shaped by long-standing internal rivalries. The main contenders are considered to be Kaieda, who is backed by party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, and Maehara and Noda, who are considered to be “anti-Ozawa.”
Ozawa is not allowed to vote because the party suspended his membership in February after he was specially indicted over a political funding scandal. However, he heads the largest internal group, which comprises about 120 loyal followers.
At a news conference with all five candidates hosted by the Japan National Press Club in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday afternoon, Kaieda again said that he may lift Ozawa’s suspension.
The media repeatedly grilled Kaieda about Ozawa, prompting him at one point to ask those present to pursue a “fairer” line of questioning.
“I would like to have everyone’s support, including Mr. Ozawa’s,” Kaieda said. “Japan is in a very difficult position . . . and to overcome this situation, I think we need Mr. Ozawa’s influence.”
Maehara, on the other hand, firmly restated his intention to uphold Ozawa’s suspension, while calling for party unity.
“I think I am the only one who has clearly stated that the decision made by the party’s current leadership should be respected,” Maehara said. “But at the same time . . . if our party cannot come together, we won’t be able to achieve results and fulfill our duty as the ruling party. Therefore, I think it is important to come together and combine our strength.”
According to various media polls, the public clearly favors Maehara. However, the ex-foreign minister admitted Saturday he had received donations from four foreigners and a firm headed by a foreigner between 2005 and 2010, in violation of the Political Funds Control Law.
The donations created a political storm that in March forced him to resign as foreign minister.
Maehara was at first reluctant to run, but changed his mind after being urged to stand by members of his internal group.
Maehara has voiced his interest in forming a grand coalition with opposition parties to break the political deadlock in the divided Diet, but the chances of this happening appear slim as the opposition is expected to zero in again on his illegal political donations if he becomes prime minister.
“It is true that I must correct the mistake in the political funds report and for not knowing (about the donations), but I absolutely did not get my hands dirty and do something wrong,” Maehara said.
“I am prepared to earnestly answer the questions that will be raised in the Diet and seek the understanding” of the opposition camp.
Noda, whose campaign was set back by Maehara’s decision to run, has also talked about the need to form a grand coalition. He also believes a tax hike is necessary to finance measures to rebuild the devastated northeast after the March disasters.
On Saturday, he pointed out that the government first needs to cut expenditures and review its personnel expenses before resorting to tax hikes, but also stated that a temporary levy might be necessary.
Kaieda, on the other hand, said the priority is to strengthen solidarity within the ruling party. “A grand coalition is not something that was talked about within the party,” he said.
Mabuchi, the least experienced candidate of the five, also stressed the need to maintain the ruling party’s existing structure and said a grand coalition should not be a priority for the new leader.
Kano, a veteran lawmaker currently serving his 11th term in the Lower House, stressed that the internal factions of the ruling party have a duty to unite behind the new leader so it can govern in a unified manner.