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Friday, September 17, 2010
OP-ED

Japanese PM survives the onslaught

Naoto Kan

In the end it turned out to be an easy victory. Naoto Kan, the incumbent prime minister and president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), defeated his sole challenger Ichiro Ozawa, the heavyweight politician known as Shadow Shogun for his backdoor maneuvering, in the party presidential election.

Since the party president also assumes the post of prime minister, a defeat for Naoto Kan would have meant Japan going through a sixth change in leadership within a short span of four years. Moreover, defeat for the incumbent prime minister could also have further eroded the popular support for the party as, in a number of recent opinion polls, people endorsed en mass their support for a continuation of leadership at a time when there are increasing worries over the economic performance of Japan.

However, the result of DPJ presidential election also raises a number of new questions, and foremost among those is what role the losing candidate Ozawa would play in Japanese politics from now on. Much of the success of the Kan administration would depend on a positive stand by Ozawa, who still enjoys a large support base among Diet members, particularly those at the lower house.

DPJ has a complex voting system in electing the party leader. Members of both the houses of Japanese Diet have a greater say as each of the member's vote counts for two points. Besides, the local assembly members representing the party, as well as party chapters and rank and file members, are also allocated certain number of points and candidates contest to win over a majority from a total of 1,222 points. Naoto Kan received 721 points against Ozawa's 491. The huge difference of 230 points surprised many observers as the media in Japan had predicted a neck and neck race until the morning of the election.

The result of the party presidential election ensures that Kan will continue to serve as prime minister for the next two-year term and will have enough space to implement policies that he and his team see as crucial for helping Japan overcome economic difficulties. But the sailing will not be easy, as the party no longer enjoys a majority in the upper house after its disastrous performance in the July election.

Moreover, any move by Ozawa and his supporters to create further difficulties for the Kan administration might weaken even more the position of DPJ in the lower house as well. As a result, "walk a tightrope" is what some analysts say that Naoto Kan will have to do. He will need to be extremely skillful in avoiding any clash within the party, the benefit of which might go in favour of the largest opposition -- the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

One of the main reasons why Ozawa suddenly decided to challenge Kan in party leadership race was his feeling that he and his supporters were increasingly being isolated from the government since Kan became prime minister in June after Yukio Hatoyama submitted his resignation. Kan's cabinet did not include those who had been close to Ozawa, and top party positions too were filled up by party members who were seen as belonging to the anti-Ozawa camp.

As a veteran politician who had become so used to pulling the strings from behind the scene, it was difficult for Ozawa to accept such a big twist in his fate. Kan, on the other hand, made it clear that he wanted to distance himself from the tainted political practices of the past as Ozawa too had to give up his post of party secretary general amid accusation of financial irregularities at the time when Hatoyama resigned.

Ozawa has a strong stake in the lower house by virtue of being at the helm of a strong support group. It was this support group of young lawmakers along with few veterans like former Prime Minister Hatoyama that, in a mid-August gathering, made a loud announcement that Ozawa would run as a candidate to challenge Kan in the party leadership election.

The first step the new Kan administration is going to take is to reshuffle the cabinet and top party positions. Though Kan did not say clearly if he was going to make a reconciliatory approach to Ozawa supporters, observers and the media expect that he might move away from his earlier position of total isolation and include a number of Ozawa supporters in the new lineup. This might defuse the tension that had been accumulating since the announcement of candidacy. However, the goodwill gesture on part of the prime minister might not be extended to Ozawa himself as the big winning margin might discourage him from taking any such move.

As for Ozawa, this might be the beginning of the end of a long career that saw him almost being elevated to the top position of the government a number of times in the past. He made it clear while announcing his candidacy that this was his last chance to offer his service to the nation. Unfortunately for Ozawa, the last chance has turned out to be a failed one. However, no one is expecting him to disappear from the political stage of Japan anytime soon.

There also remains the possibility of Ozawa bolting out of DPJ along with his supporters, which would place the party and the government in an extremely difficult situation to maintain the majority in the lower house. Should such a scenario arise, this would mean the eventual dissolution of the house and call for a fresh election, which would possibly give Ozawa another last chance to try his luck to remain a king maker.

Anyway, the victory for Kan is not a total one, as from now on he will need to learn the skill of managing not only the opposition in the Diet, but also his own party that stands very close to falling apart should there be a big mistake.

Monzurul Huq writes from Japan.

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