Tokyo Notes

DPJ Newbie Power

Japan’s DPJ leadership race is still neck and neck. So will it be the newbies who swing the vote?

With a week to go, the leadership race of Japan’s ruling party still appears to be neck and neck. A clear surge of support for one of the candidates has yet to emerge, suggesting the battle will have a nail-biting climax on September 14 when Diet members have their say. The result may well come down to how undecided first-term Diet members vote on the day.

Surveys by newspapers and news agencies here suggest that Prime Minister Naoto Kan has an advantage over challenger Ichiro Ozawa when it comes to support from registered supporters, staff and local assembly members of the Democratic Party of Japan, who together have a combined 400 votes in the election. But even if Kan were to win two-thirds of these votes, Ozawa would need only to replicate half that margin of advantage among the 412 DPJ Diet members to win since their votes have double weighting.

Media were quick to point out at the beginning of the campaign that Ozawa was starting with an advantage among Diet members since he leads the largest DPJ faction with 150 members and is being backed by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose own intraparty group has up to 60 members. In the simplest possible terms, that would appear to give him as many as 210 supporters against Kan’s combined 120 (aggregating the groups of Transport Minister Seiji Maehara, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his own).

But the figures can be misleading. The DPJ factions are not as disciplined or delineated as in the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, and many members of Hatoyama’s group have expressed dismay at the former premier’s sudden switch of allegiance to Ozawa. The latest newspaper surveys indicate that the battle is much closer among Diet members than these back-of-an-envelope figures suggest, and that Ozawa only has a whisker of an advantage.

One group of lawmakers within the party that could sway the final result comprises those serving their first term in the Diet. There are 143 newbies in the lower house and 13 in the upper house. Many of them are supposed to have ties with Ozawa since he was previously the DPJ’s election strategist and was involved in picking and supporting many of them. But the newcomers may have less loyalty to the so-called shadow shogun than older lawmakers whose ties with him have run deep for many years.

A report in Monday’s Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s main dailies, picked up on this point and revealed the confused opinions among DPJ freshmen, who only just saw Ozawa step down as secretary general in May. Why is the man calling for the DPJ to honour its manifesto, not nearly so keen on honouring his own commitment to help the party clean itself up? First-timers might also be more easily swayed by the various opinion polls that have shown overwhelming support for Kan among the general public, and by the result among the party’s rank and file supporters and staff, which is due to be announced either on the eve of the Diet members’ vote or on the actual day itself.