NEWSMAKER-Japan’s Ozawa makes final gamble in bid for PM

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, Aug 27 (BestGrowthStock) – Japan’s Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran
lawmaker known for shaking things up, may be making his last
big gamble that could either end his career or give him the
nation’s top job.

Ozawa, 68, is dubbed the “Destroyer” for his track record
of breaking up parties he created.

He is challenging Prime Minister Naoto Kan in a Sept. 14
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leadership race, setting the
stage for a heated contest that could split his party as Japan
struggles with deep economic woes. [ID:nTOE67O09A]

“It’s a big gamble for Ozawa,” said Columbia University
professor Gerry Curtis. “If two-thirds decide to go for Kan,
it’s the end of Mr. Ozawa. But for the moment, it seems he has
a good shot at winning and it’ll be very close.”

The stocky, pugnacious Ozawa has long been a paradox,
plagued by an image as an old-fashioned fixer but admired as an
advocate of changes such as a bolder security role for Tokyo
and a reduction in bureaucrats’ control over government
policies.

Critics, though, say for Ozawa, policy matters take a
backseat to his main objective of winning and keeping power.

“What Ozawa wants to achieve is not policy implementation,
but control over people and money,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a
senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank.

Economic policies have never been Ozawa’s forte during a
four-decade career, and flexibility has been key.

In his 1993 book, “Blueprint for a New Japan”, laying out
his policy thinking at the time, Ozawa called for raising
Japan’s sales tax, then 3 percent, to 10 percent to fund social
welfare.

But as DPJ leader from 2006-2009 and as party No. 2 last
year, Ozawa adopted a populist note — attacked by some as
old-style pork-barrel spending — to woo voters, a shift partly
responsible for the DPJ’s stunning election victory a year ago.

Ozawa criticised Kan for floating a possible doubling of
the sales tax to 10 percent ahead of a July upper house
election defeat which cost the ruling bloc its majority in the
chamber.

IRKED AT AMERICA?

He has also sounded increasingly critical of Japan’s close
security ally the United States, sparking concern that ties
would fray if he won the top job.

Long a proponent of making Japan a “normal nation” whose
military is less constrained by a pacifist constitution, he
favours pegging any overseas military action to the United
Nations rather than Washington’s solo lead.

This week he called Americans “simple-minded” in a speech
to rookie lawmakers. “He comes across as very critical of
America and close to China,” Curtis said. “I don’t think that
is true … but he seems to have gotten more irritable about
America.”

Ozawa’s skills as an election strategist have been credited
with helping engineer the DPJ’s huge win in an August 2009
lower house election that ousted the conservative Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) after more than 50 years of almost
unbroken rule.

Some analysts, however, say voters cast their ballots for
the Democrats mainly out of frustration with the LDP’s
failures.

Ozawa stepped down as party leader over a political funding
scandal last year months before the election. His successor,
Yukio Hatoyama, tapped him as party No. 2 after taking office
as prime minister, but both resigned after Hatoyama’s
indecisiveness and Ozawa’s scandal-tainted image sent voter
support nosediving.

The scandal still clouds Ozawa’s future. A judicial panel
of ordinary citizens is expected to rule sometime after the DPJ
vote whether he must face indictment in the case.

With the party needing opposition support to pass bills,
Ozawa’s backers say his political skills may be just what is
needed. Others doubt opposition parties will play ball.

Some analysts speculate what Ozawa really wants is to spark
a realignment of party allegiances to remake the two biggest
parties, though whether policy consistency would result is
doubtful.

A protege of Kakuei Tanaka, a former prime minister who
built Japan’s postwar political regime of pork-barrel, party
factions and vested interests, Ozawa was a rising star in the
LDP until he bolted the party in 1993 and helped briefly oust
it from power.

Ozawa’s small Liberal Party merged with the Democrats in
2003 and three years later, he took the helm.

An awkward public speaker whose relations with domestic
media are rocky and a skilled player of the chess-like game of
“Go”, Ozawa has been dogged by a reputation as an autocratic
loner.

NEWSMAKER-Japan’s Ozawa makes final gamble in bid for PM