Ozawa waits in the wings while Kan languishes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 August, 2010, 12:00am

In opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan vowed to stamp out the corruption and factional fighting that had paralysed the conservative regime.

Its leaders promised policies that would improve the lives of the public. They vowed to be answerable to voters and rebuild the nation - both socially and economically - and not repeat the failings of the political dinosaurs of the Liberal Democratic Party.

On August 30, the DPJ will have been in power for precisely 12 months, during which time it has squandered most of the goodwill and support that it had in the run-up to that general election.

It is telling that one of the newspapers that were so supportive of the DPJ in those heady days of last summer is close to despair today.

'What on earth are these people doing?' the Asahi newspaper asked in its editorial yesterday. 'Many voters must feel disgusted.'

And they do. But the biggest issue is not the continuing state of the economy or the failure to push through meaningful reforms.

The single biggest indicator of how far the party has deviated from its popular path can be embodied in one name: Ichiro Ozawa.

He resigned as party leader in May last year after failing to completely shake off accusations of accepting bribes from a construction company. Public prosecutors are investigating him over yet more allegations of financial impropriety.

Despite all this, Ozawa is today considering challenging Naoto Kan for the presidency of the party and, with it, the position of Japanese prime minister.

Although he has yet to confirm his candidature, the Japanese media has widely reported the potential leadership attempt and Ozawa has not hosed down the talk.

The corruption claims and the widespread belief that most voters despise him do not apparently matter a great deal to Ozawa or the 150-odd politicians who have indicated they will back his campaign. Those supporters include former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was widely considered to be a stooge of Ozawa until he resigned on June 2.

Nominations for any challenge to Kan must be formally announced by September 1 and the election for party leader will be held on September 14. Until then, factions will be mimicking the infighting that characterised the increasingly desperate final years of the LDP government.

'I suppose you could say that they are evolving into the LDP themselves, although they are doing it terribly clumsily, which makes it even worse,' said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Kyoto's Doshisha University. 'At least the LDP was able to rally round when its very survival was at stake, but this lot seem utterly bent on self-destruction.

'It is a completely frustrating situation for voters,' she said. 'We had such high hopes for this government and the fact that they do not even seem to remember who got them where they are today is criminal.'

But while Ozawa's apparent determination to ignore public opinion and his record (although he has not been charged with any illegal actions) underline his audacity, Kan is not entirely without blame, either.

'There is plenty that he could still do to head off this challenge,' Hama said. 'But he doesn't. He just seems to sit and dither. I really think that if he even mildly began to get his act together, then the public would give him the benefit of the doubt, not least because they really don't want Ozawa to be prime minister.'

Kan has been in office for only three months and, if he loses the September 14 vote of party members, will be one of the shortest-lived leaders of Japan in history.

He has accepted the blame for the party's defeat in the July 11 election for the upper house of parliament, a loss that has made the government's task harder by enabling the opposition parties to block legislation.

Ozawa had criticised Kan for floating the prospect of a higher sales tax ahead of the July election. However, it would take a harsh critic to regard Kan's tenure as a failure on the basis of 12 weeks in the top job.

Yet such critics clearly exist, including Kan's party colleagues who attended a 'workshop' hosted by Hatoyama late last week that turned into a rally to underline Ozawa's support base.

'If Ozawa is elected, it will be solely for the interests of those in the party who are panicking already,' Hama said. 'And that is simply not good for a country that is meant to be led by a democratically elected government.'

Party pressure

Ichiro Ozawa is seen as targeting the presidency of the DPJ next month

The incumbent, Naoto Kan, has been Japanese prime minister for only this number of weeks: 12