Nearly a year after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took office following its historic blowout general election victory, Japanese, a few of them anyway, will return to the polls on Sept. 14 to determine who will be Japan’s next prime minister – as well as the future direction of the party.
The venue will be the election to the president of the party by DPJ members of the Diet (parliament), DPJ prefectural legislators and those of the public who are card-carrying members of the party. The person elected president will automatically assume the post of prime minister.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan won the presidency against one no-hoper last June in a special party election held in the wake of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s resignation. Now he is being challenged by Ichiro Ozawa, the party’s backroom powerhouse, and a man who would have been premier save for a political funding scandal (for which he is still under investigation).
The country is presented with a battle of the titans, perhaps the most watched and interesting intra-party election ever held in Japan. The outcome of the vote could give the dispirited government party a fresh start, or possibly set in motion the party’s unraveling and another round of realignment and revolving door premiers.
Some view the race as a simple power grab by a kingmaker who may never have another chance at the throne; party and public be damned. Perhaps so, but it is also true that the two contenders have pretty clearly defined opinions on the future direction of the DPJ government.
Ozawa argues that the party went astray by abandoning or modifying most of its campaign promises, incorporated in the election manifesto of last year, such as full funding for child care. That’s why it lost the election in the House of Councillors last July, he argues. He promises to put the emphasis on the manifesto’s proposals, while delaying any debate on increasing taxes to pay for them.
Kan, for his part, has made it clear that he intends to revise many of the party’s proposals involving social spending that are difficult to fulfill given the national financial realities. He wants to initiate a debate on raising the consumption tax, now set at 5 percent, to 10 percent.
Ozawa has a point. After getting off to a pretty good start, the new government soon went astray by concentrating on extraneous issues. The key issue for former premier Hatoyama was a promise - one which he failed to keep - to reopen and revise the agreement with Washington to realign American forces on Okinawa.
This was the political equivalent of an own goal. Japan and the U.S. had studied the issue for fifteen years before an agreement was reached. With good reason, Washington considered it a done deal; it was mentioned only in passing during the election. Why Hatoyama reopened this issue and raised hopes on the southern island, only to have them dashed, is inexplicable.
After he resigned and turned the reins of government over to Kan, the new prime minister hastily brought up the notion of raising the consumption tax from 5 to possibly 10 percent, another issue that was never debated in the 2009 election. Why anyone would propose such a thing with a national election just weeks away was almost equally unexplainable in pure political terms.
Not to say these aren't important issues - with more than half of the national budget covered by borrowing, the issue of fiscal responsibility is pressing. Hatoyama might deserve praise for trying to find a better solution to the basing question and assuage Okinawan concerns. But in politics, one doesn’t get many points for trying, and both issues were handled very clumsily.
If it is a mystery why Hatoyama let himself get side tracked by the Futenma Marine air base issue, it is equally mystifying why Kan was seduced so easily by the clarion call of fiscal responsibility. After all, there is not much in this politician’s long background, starting as a social activist, that anticipates this new-found concern about fiscal conservatism.
It should be remembered, though, that Kan moved directly to the top job after serving as minister of finance, and it is probable that he came under the strong influence of the finance ministry mandarins and their concerns. It was also a time when the meltdown of the Greek economy was still fresh in people’s minds.
Kan came to his new role with direct and immediate experience in running an important government department. Despite his long career in politics, Ozawa actually has very little administrative experience outside of internal party administration. He hasn’t held a cabinet post for 25 years, when he was minister of home affairs under Yasuhiro Nakasone. You could say Ozawa knows everything about electioneering, but little about governing
Ozawa is a brilliant political technician, a maker and breaker of political parties. More than any one individual, he was responsible for the DPJ's historic win, and he still commands loyalty among many of the freshmen Diet members whom he personally recruited. That’s why he and Kan are basically running neck-in-neck in the party poll, at least among Diet members.
To the public at large, however, opinion is much less closely divided. Various opinion polls suggest that 70-80 percent of the public oppose Ozawa’s challenge and his becoming the third prime minister of Japan inside one year. He is still seen mainly as a politician of the old school, a man who learned his politics at the knee of Mr. Money Politics himself, Kakuei Tanaka.
Whoever wins the contest may not like the prize, however. The victor will face serious realities: an economy that is sputtering, a currency that is climbing through the roof and a divided Diet as a result of last July’s election to the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. The winner is going to need all of the healing and uniting powers he can muster.