Japan's prime minister survives his party's attempt to oust him

Naoto Kan defeats challenger Ichiro Ozawa, but the political struggle could hamper Japan's fragile economic recovery.

September 15, 2010|By John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano, Los Angeles Times
  • Prime Minister Naoto Kan, a plain-spoken fiscal disciplinarian and former finance minister, survived a takeover attempt within his own ruling Democratic Party.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, a plain-spoken fiscal disciplinarian and former… (EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN,…)

Reporting from Seoul and Tokyo —

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a takeover attempt from within his own Democratic Party on Tuesday, defeating an ambitious political boss who helped set the stage for Kan's rise to power just three months ago.

Kan's defeat of Ichiro Ozawa spares the nation the upheaval of having its third new prime minister in just 12 months, and its sixth in four years, as it struggles with prolonged economic woes.

To many, the results signaled a hard-won victory over old-school political arm twisting by a pragmatic former civic activist. Yet Kan, 63, did not emerge unscathed from the party leadership vote, which could jeopardize his efforts to rein in Japan's huge public debt and prolong its fragile economic recovery, activists said.

Although both politicians pledged before the election to work to support the victor, some analysts said Ozawa, one of the entrenched kingpins of Japanese politics, could split the party.

"How much of a victory this is for Kan depends on how Ozawa reacts," said Wilhelm Vosse, a political scientist at International Christian University in Tokyo. "Given his nickname, the Destroyer, Ozawa might come back if Kan gets into trouble, or he might immediately leave and set up his own party. Then Kan would really have a big problem maintaining his party's majority."

Known as a shrewd but critically flawed political strategist, Ozawa is credited with engineering the Democratic Party's surprise victory in August 2009, which ended half a century of nearly uninterrupted rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

But the Democratic Party soon stumbled. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June, replaced by Kan. In one ill-timed move that many say further ruptured public confidence, Kan proposed raising Japan's sales tax to as high as 10%. His party soon lost its upper house majority in a July election.

In August, the enigmatic Ozawa surprised supporters and critics alike when he announced that he would challenge Kan for the party presidency and the prime minister's job.

Kan, a plain-spoken fiscal disciplinarian and former finance minister, enjoyed a 4-1 support ratio in some public polls. Other polls, focused on younger people, showed Ozawa ahead by the same ratio.

Over the weekend, rank-and-file Democratic Party members voted overwhelmingly for Kan, but their ballots counted for only a third of the total. On Tuesday, Kan won slightly more than half the votes cast by the party's 411 parliamentarians, eventually giving him an unexpectedly wide margin of victory, 721 to 491.

An Ozawa victory would have been a stunning comeback for the controversial insider, who resigned as the party's vice president in June amid a lingering funding scandal. He faces indictment as early as next month but has denied all charges.

Ozawa has said that the party leadership vote "wraps up my political life." But analysts said his influence in Japanese politics was probably far from over.

With only three months in power, analysts said, Kan has had little opportunity to show his political prowess.

"Kan's prevailing wasn't a big surprise; [he's] only been in office for about three months. There really isn't a legitimate reason for him to leave his position," said Kensuke Takayasu, a political scientist at Seikei University.

"I think it would have been pretty difficult for a figure like Ozawa, someone who is undergoing prosecution, to actually lead as prime minister for this country."

With his victory over Ozawa, experts say, Kan could stop the recent revolving door of prime ministers.

"He has momentum. The question is how long that will last," Vosse said. "In a few weeks or months, he could lose his current support rate, which has risen to 55% during this recent campaign. If he can show voters he is a true leader and wants to grab this opportunity with both hands, he can be successful."

Times staff writer Glionna reported from Seoul and special correspondent Nagano from Tokyo. Ethan Kim in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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