Japan’s prime minister and a powerbroker who is looking to oust him scrambled for last-minute support yesterday, the eve of a tight party leadership battle that could deliver the country its third premier in a year.
In a race seen as too close to call, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in office for just three months, faces a challenge from Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran backroom fixer and the biggest faction boss in their Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Their contest — to be decided by the DPJ’s 411 lawmakers, local politicians and party members, not the general voting public — comes a year after the center-left DPJ ended an almost unbroken half-century conservative government.
Kan, a 1970s social activist cultivating a “son of a salaryman” image, is up against Ozawa, an old-school backroom operator dubbed the “Shadow Shogun” who in the early 1990s defected from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
While Kan is favored by the Japanese public — with around 70 percent support according to most media polls — Ozawa wields strong support inside the DPJ, where he helped many first-time lawmakers win their seats.
“The vote result remains difficult to predict, even at this point,” said Tomoaki Iwai, politics professor at Tokyo’s Nihon University, who pointed out that the two-yearly party vote today will be by secret ballot.
“Because media polls show Mr Kan has a slight edge [with party rank and file members], his supporters may relax, while Mr Ozawa may gain more backing from among those lawmakers who feel indebted to him,” Iwai said.
Both camps, which have bombarded undecided lawmakers with phone calls in recent weeks, enjoyed roughly even support among the lawmakers today, with dozens still wavering, according to surveys and media reports.
In last-minute campaigning, Kan yesterday made the rounds of undecided party lawmakers, handing them leaflets with policy pledges, and was later in the day due to meet visiting California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ozawa, meanwhile, visited interest groups, including the largest trade union, Rengo, and the Japan Medical Association, to make his case that he would be a safe pair of hands as Japan’s next leader.
The winner of the party presidential election is assured the prime ministership because the DPJ controls the powerful lower house Diet, even though it took a beating in the upper house in July polls.
Under the DPJ’s complex voting formula, its 411 lawmakers will carry disproportionate weight over the 340,000 rank-and-file members.
Because of the election system, Ozawa “can become the prime minister even though he is unpopular among voters,” said Iwai, who added that this would however “put Ozawa in a difficult position in running the government.”
“Whoever wins the election, running the government will be difficult. I wonder if the DPJ-led government will last even until early next year, Iwai said.
In a turbulent first year, the DPJ is already on its second prime minister, Kan, after his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June over a damaging dispute with Washington and amid criticism of his waffling leadership style.