TOKYO, Aug 27 (Reuters) - 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.
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.