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Saturday, April 8, 2006

Ozawa humbly takes helm, acknowledges need to change style

Staff writer

The Democratic Party of Japan's presidential election Friday was probably the last chance for 63-year-old Ichiro Ozawa to return to the political limelight.

News photo
Ichiro Ozawa, new president of the Democratic Party of Japan, answers questions at a news conference after the election.

Ozawa has long been regarded as one of few DPJ politicians with the name recognition and experience to head the largest opposition party, but he has let down supporters by refusing to run for the top post in the past two party elections.

The third time may be the charm, but Ozawa takes the helm of the DPJ at a time when it is reeling from scandal and facing what some members describe as the "biggest crisis" in its 10-year history.

"Not much time is left for the DPJ or me," Ozawa said on an NHK TV program on Thursday.

Ozawa has cultivated an image of being a determined reformist since bolting from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 1993, a move that contributed to the end of the one-party rule the LDP had enjoyed since it was founded in 1955.

Most DPJ members appeared to cast their lot with Ozawa in the hope that he will give the struggling opposition party a fresh look ahead of the Upper House elections next summer. The other contender, DPJ cofounder Naoto Kan, has been party president twice before.

But as seen in the 72 votes Kan garnered in Friday's ballot, some in the party -- especially those who don't care for his overbearing political style -- were reluctant to get behind him.

Ozawa is a something of a political lightning rod, drawing both praise and criticism for being disciplined -- or dictatorial.

Many credit his consistent support for small government, willingness to take on the country's powerful bureaucrats, and enthusiasm for having Japan take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

But others view Ozawa as an old-school politician who prefers to make decisions with a handful of close aides behind closed doors, rather than through the patient consensus-building that past DPJ leaders have relied on to maintain party unity. That consensus is important given that the DPJ includes both national security hawks like Ozawa and more dovish types like Kan.

Before the DPJ was founded, Ozawa led Shinshinto, then the largest opposition party, first as secretary general and later as president, from 1994 to 1997. But the party eventually split into pro- and anti-Ozawa factions, which led to its breakup in December 1997.

Ozawa has often been called arrogant and iron-fisted. He has a reputation for high-handedness toward lawmakers, the media and even corporate donors.

But it seems that Ozawa is aware that he must change his leadership style if he is ever to achieve his goal of ousting the ruling coalition.

As he stood before DPJ members at a Tokyo hotel after the vote, Ozawa humbly thanked his supporters -- and sought to reach out to opponents, saying, "I've been appointed as the DPJ's representative, which is more honor than I deserve. We will combine our strength and strive for a change in government."

At a news conference later, Ozawa said he was aware that he had to change, by being friendlier toward the media, for example.

But he also showed a hint of the iron fist.

"While I will not totally reject Japanese society's preference for consensus, I believe a framework that is a bit more autonomous, rational and logical should be incorporated." he said.

Ozawa's pledge to maintain party unity is likely to be tested when he selects the DPJ's new leadership, which he said he would do by Saturday night.

He pledged to work with outgoing Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama and Kan, indicating that both would be among the new executives.

Apart from promising to improve Japan's frosty ties with China and South Korea, he has so far provided few specifics on policy.

One thing, however, seems clear: The DPJ under Ozawa is likely to take a tougher line against the LDP. He has repeatedly criticized outgoing President Seiji Maehara for not advocating policies that set the party from the LDP.

But that's not why Ozawa won the fight this time around. In the words of one senior DPJ member, "Ozawa is really great as a politician, but not because of his ideas in policy matters. What is really great are his skills in power struggles. Young politicians often do not understand that."

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The Japan Times

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