Pundits were split Thursday over who will win the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election, Prime Minister Naoto Kan or political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.

But they all agreed that regardless of who takes the big prize, the outcome will drastically change the political landscape and could even prompt some key losers to leave the ruling party and throw the nation’s leadership into even further disarray.

“Things can change drastically depending on the outcome of the vote,” political analyst Eiken Itagaki said, explaining that if Kan is the last man standing, Ozawa could bolt the DPJ and form a new group.

If on the other hand Ozawa comes out on top, the power broker could flex his muscles and quickly reshape the political sphere.

“Mr. Ozawa could use his ties with some minor parties, such as Your Party, Shinto Kaikaku (New Party for Reform), or Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan), so the DPJ could gain a majority in the Upper House,” Itagaki said. “That could actually work in favor of stabilizing the government.”

Meanwhile, political commentator Minoru Morita noted that the Kan-Ozawa battle is in essence an internal power struggle and offers little in the way of national policy debate.

“This has already become a struggle for power within the DPJ, and isn’t about what is best for the public,” he said.

For example, Morita was critical that former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Ozawa, who both stepped down in June for the sake of “creating a new DPJ,” appear to have teamed up again and are working to take command of the ruling party.

“Obviously, no one in the public trusts or understands what the duo are trying to do” now, Morita said.

This early in the game, the race is too close to call.

Polls have suggested about 70 percent to 80 percent of voters are opposed to Ozawa as DPJ president and prime minister, citing the shady political money scandals that might still result in him being indicted. Many DPJ lawmakers have hesitated to back Ozawa out of fear of a voter backlash.

Kan, meanwhile, had a public approval rating above 60 percent when he took office, but support has taken a nose-dive following his political flip-flops over raising the consumption tax and the DPJ’s subsequent loss in the Upper House election last month.

The list of achievements for Kan’s three-month-old administration is meager, and its inaction over the yen’s recent surge is quickly drawing flak.

Ozawa has the backing of Hatoyama and is likely to gain support from many of the roughly 140 DPJ Diet members believed to be pro-Ozawa and dubbed “Ozawa Children.” They won their seats under Ozawa’s strategy in the Lower House election last year.

The cagey veteran, who stepped down in June along with Hatoyama over money scandals, is awaiting a decision by an independent judicial panel on whether he should be indicted for falsifying financial reports by his political fund management body.

Morita said Kan may have a slight lead, but only because he is viewed as the lesser of two evils and isn’t entangled in a financial scandal.

“Ozawa chose today to announce his candidacy because Kan rejected his proposals,” Morita said.

Ozawa probably suggested he would withdraw from the race to unify the party, but only on condition that Kan reinstate him to an important party position, the analyst said.

“But Kan thought he can beat Ozawa and declined the overture. And with that, the only option left for Ozawa was to run for the presidency himself,” Morita said.

Morita now believes about a third of the DPJ’s lawmakers are strong supporters of Kan, while another third have close ties with Ozawa.

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