Throwing potential chaos into the Democratic Party of Japan's presidential election, power broker Ichiro Ozawa is considering offering his support to candidate Seiji Maehara in exchange for the party's secretary-general's post and the snubbing of his enemies.
The maneuvering skills of Maehara, a former foreign minister, will be severely tested as he attempts a balancing act concerning Ozawa, Maehara's allies in the party and public opinion.
Maehara wants to avoid a direct confrontation with Ozawa, but he cannot give the impression that he is caving in to the various demands of the former party president, whose group of about 100 lawmakers is the largest in the ruling party.
Ozawa is using the election to rebound from the various measures taken by Prime Minister Naoto Kan to keep him away from the centers of power.
Maehara and Ozawa met for about 10 minutes on Aug. 24. While Maehara informed Ozawa about his intention to run in the DPJ presidential election on Aug. 29, sources said Ozawa gave no clear indication of whether he and his group would support the former foreign minister.
Because of his high public support ratings, Maehara is already seen as the early front-runner in the election. If he gained the support of the Ozawa group, Maehara would be virtually assured of becoming the next DPJ president and, consequently, the next prime minister.
He would also be able to avoid the internal party friction between Ozawa and Kan that has stymied the operations of the current government.
However, sources said Ozawa is seeking a high price for his support, namely, the second-highest post in the party.
The secretary-general is in charge of not only party funds, but also has wide powers to approve official endorsements of candidates in national elections as well as appoint lawmakers to party and government posts.
When he was party president, Ozawa appointed Yukio Hatoyama, the former prime minister, as secretary-general. Between 2006 and 2008, they distributed 2.2 billion yen ($28.2 million) in party funds to close associates for use in electoral districts where close races were expected.
Control over money and appointments allowed Ozawa to build up the largest group within the DPJ.
However, after Kan became party president in June 2010, he took a decidedly anti-Ozawa position and appointed Yukio Edano and Katsuya Okada as secretary-general. Both are known as sharp critics of Ozawa and his political ways.
Okada made more transparent the use of party funds, and in the DPJ presidential election of September 2010, Kan and his supporters rounded up party votes by warning that Ozawa should not get his hands on that money.
Kan and the DPJ executives also decided to suspend Ozawa's party privileges until his criminal trial over a political fund scandal has concluded. That led to a decline in Ozawa's internal party influence, and a number of lawmakers left his group.
His trial is scheduled to begin this autumn.
To prevent a further decline in his influence, Ozawa feels the secretary-general post is vital, according to sources close to him.
Ozawa and his allies also have not forgiven Okada, Edano and Yoshito Sengoku, the acting party president, for pushing Ozawa to the sidelines of the party's activities. They are seeking to have those three left out of important party or government posts as a condition for their support to Maehara, the sources said.
Sengoku, a close ally of Maehara, met secretly with Ozawa on Aug. 23 and asked for his support. According to sources, Ozawa was not in a reconciliatory mood, telling Sengoku, "I have always wanted to proceed through party unity, but all of you worked to remove me from the picture."
If Maehara were to give in to Ozawa and appoint someone close to him as secretary-general, he would lose control of party management and would have to seek Ozawa's approval for any policy measure he wanted to implement. Moreover, if the Maehara administration was seen as a puppet government controlled by Ozawa, Maehara could lose his biggest asset?strong public support.
Maehara would need high public support ratings to gain the cooperation of the opposition parties in the Diet. Threats to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election would only work if his support ratings were high.
For those reasons, Maehara does not want to be seen as kowtowing to Ozawa.
Ozawa, always the strategist, is preparing other measures in the event Maehara does not bend.
At an Aug. 24 meeting with close allies, Ozawa said, "There is rarely a 'best choice,' so we have to look for what is a better choice."
Because of Maehara's popularity among the public, Ozawa appears to be looking for an opposing candidate who could attract the support of various elements within the DPJ.
"Maehara has just announced his candidacy, but I feel the circumstances could change over the next few days," Ozawa said at the Aug. 24 meeting.
Party sources said Ozawa was considering pushing Kazuhiro Haraguchi, the former internal affairs minister, to run in the DPJ presidential election.
A contest between Maehara and Haraguchi would be another version of a confrontation between pro- and anti-Ozawa camps.
A younger lawmaker in the Ozawa group said: "Even if we lost, the new administration would soon run into problems like the Kan government. We would only have to wait for the next DPJ presidential election in September 2012 to make our next move."
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