Earlier this month it seemed likely that Ichiro Ozawa, backroom wheeler-dealer and master of the political dark arts, would be successful in his bid to become leader of the DPJ, a result that would also make him Japan’s fourth prime minister in four years. However, it now appears that victory is far from certain: DJP MP Banri Kaeda, one of Ozawa’s most prominent backers, now thinks that “the situation is very severe”. In other words, he doesn’t think Ozawa will beat incumbent Naoto Kan.
Although a recent opinion poll showed that less than 20% of the Japanese public think Ozawa should be prime minister, he continues to enjoy the majority of support among the DPJ’s MPs. While this may look like – and indeed probably would be – electoral suicide on the MPs’ part, a large number of them owe Ozawa their political careers. To vote against him would be to make a very powerful enemy – Ozawa isn’t called ‘the destroyer’ for nothing.
It isn’t just MPs who get to vote, though: local assembly members and regional officials are also having their say, albeit with reduced influence (MPs’ votes are worth twice as much as the other two combined). If Kan can sway enough members of these two groups to back him, as well as a large number of the 60 MPs who have yet to decide, he may be able to hold on. Kaeda seems to think that this may very well happen.
Defeat for Ozawa may be good for the DPJ’s electoral chances – and for Japanese politics in general – but it could spell disaster for Ozawa himself: he is currently under investigation for funding irregularities. Holders of high offices in government are immune from prosecution, but as Ozawa’s chances of becoming PM slip away he may very well be indicted, just like three of his aides were this February.