Ichiro Ozawa on Monday retracted his earlier consent to become president of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, saying he failed to pay into the National Pension Program for six years in the 1980s.
His announcement sent shock waves among DPJ leaders, who on Friday managed to win his consent to take over from departing party chief Naoto Kan.
Kan announced his resignation earlier last week over his own past failure to pay mandatory pension premiums.
Ozawa’s announcement came just one day before he was to be formally elected chief of the DPJ in a joint assembly of the party’s members in both chambers of the Diet.
On Friday, Ozawa accepted a request from DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada to run for the presidency. With no other candidate in sight, it was seen as being almost certain Ozawa would be chosen uncontested as the new chief.
Okada, who had earlier denied any plan to vie for the party leadership, has emerged as a likely candidate.
“There is no choice but (to select) Okada,” a senior DPJ lawmaker said Monday night.
He said the party elders will likely reach a consensus on Okada as the new chief on Tuesday morning, suggesting that the joint assembly of party members would be held in the afternoon as scheduled.
After Kan admitted late last month that he had failed to pay mandatory pension premiums for 10 months while serving as health minister in 1996, the DPJ said other party executives, including Ozawa, the deputy DPJ chief, were in the clear as far back as April 1986, when it became mandatory for Diet members to join the national pension program.
But as it turned out, Ozawa did not make payments into the basic pension system between April 1980 and March 1986, a period during which Diet members, covered by a separate mutual-aid pension program, were able to join the system on a voluntary basis.
In a news conference Monday evening, Ozawa said he decided not to run for the DPJ presidency “as I think I am not suitable at the moment.”
“I felt I ought to take responsibility” for failing to join the national pension program, even when it was not mandatory to do so, he told reporters at DPJ headquarters.
“Public distrust of the pension system has reached the boiling point following (the revelation) that members of the Cabinet of (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi failed to pay national pension premiums,” Ozawa said.
He said could not be spared any blame.
In recent weeks, Nagata-cho has been rocked by revelations that dozens of Diet members, including seven Cabinet ministers, failed to pay mandatory premiums for the national pension scheme for varying lengths of time.
Of the ministers who failed to pay, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda — Koizumi’s right-hand man — stepped down to take responsibility, prompting Kan to follow suit.
Ozawa said he deeply regrets his mistake, given his position as a lawmaker who encourages the public to pay mandatory premiums to promote the social security system.
He said he looked into his case Monday, following the revelation Friday that Koizumi had missed payments into the national pension program for six years and 11 months before the payment was made mandatory in April 1986.
During the news conference, Ozawa indirectly criticized Koizumi, suggesting his own case is similar to that of the prime minister’s. In disclosing his missed payments on Friday, Koizumi insisted that he bears “no political responsibility.”
Asked by reporters to comment on Ozawa’s move, Koizumi said, “I do not understand why” Ozawa withdrew from the DPJ race.
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