Tokyo Notes

Kan Holds Onto Japan Leadership

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Tokyo Notes

Kan Holds Onto Japan Leadership

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has survived a close-fought challenge to his leadership by Ichiro Ozawa.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has survived a bitter challenge to his leadership from political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who questioned Kan’s backpedalling on manifesto promises. In winning the poll for presidency of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Kan has managed to stop the revolving door of the Japanese prime minister’s office, for the time being at least.

Kan must now tackle the issue of how to reunite a party that has been deeply divided over which direction it should take barely 12 months after sweeping to power in last year’s general election.

Kan was announced the winner of Tuesday’s party presidential vote at 3:40 pm. He garnered 721 votes compared with Ozawa’s 491, winning a larger than expected share of the total. As predicted by media surveys, Kan won an overwhelming majority of support among party staff and supporters, but he also unexpectedly beat Ozawa 206-200 in the vote among DPJ parliamentarians, which counted double and for about two-thirds of the overall result.

While this means Kan has done better than expected and will be able to say he has majority support from all sectors of the party, he still must find a way to heal the open wounds of a divided party. Attention will therefore focus on what role, if any, he offers Ozawa and his supporters in the interests of party unity.

Of the DPJ’s Diet members who had yet to make up their minds over who to vote for in the ballot, it seems most of them opted for Kan. The influence of several opinion polls suggesting the vast majority of the public were in favor of Kan over Ozawa must have been one factor in shaping their final decisions. Ozawa has yet to shake off a politics and money scandal that has seen three aides indicted, and cleaning up the party was one of Kan’s original goals in taking over from Yukio Hatoyama in June.

Not surprisingly, Kan was keen to play up this clean-and-trustworthy card in his final speech delivered to a meeting of the DPJ’s Diet members immediately before the vote. He also stressed that one person or one small group of people could not take full political responsibility for leading the nation, saying that his administration would have ‘a cabinet of 411,’ referring to the number of DPJ Diet members. Everyone’s voice should be heard and this was the kind of democracy the DPJ should stand for, Kan stressed, a less than disguised attack on Ozawa’s autocratic style.

For his part, Ozawa talked of his long-held dream of transforming the nature of Japanese politics and taking the power away from bureaucrats and giving it back to the people. Politicians had to make decisions, not leave policymaking to the bureaucrats, a practice he said was typical of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. This change had to take place now, Ozawa said, before it was too late, thereby suggesting that under Kan the DPJ was not much better in this respect than the LDP. But while much of the content of Ozawa’s speech seemed to tally more with the original goals of last year’s general election campaign than Kan’s, his voice wavered at times and his historical references to the 19th century Meiji Restoration seemed dated compared with the imagery of Kan’s speech.

All the same, those recent opinion polls that showed public support for Kan over Ozawa, also indicate that even members of the public believe Ozawa has more of an ability to get things done than Kan, even if they don't want him as their prime minister. So the question now is, what if anything will Kan ask Ozawa to do?