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Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2006
Abe may be Ozawa's target of opportunity
By MASAMI ITO
The battle is officially on -- Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe vs. Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa.
While Abe is set to become the new prime minister Tuesday in a Diet vote, Ozawa was officially reinstalled as DPJ head at an extraordinary party convention Monday after an uncontested leadership race.
At a glance, the power balance obviously favors Abe of the ruling party. But analysts say the largest opposition party is gearing up efforts to knock the LDP off its throne.
According to Tsuneo Watanabe, an adjunct fellow of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Abe's rise to lead the LDP is convenient for the DPJ.
"The contrast (between Abe and Ozawa) is stark -- their images, capability and policies," Watanabe said.
For example, he said, the 64-year-old Ozawa is seen as possessing diverse experience, integrity and most of all, true charisma. Abe, 52, on the other hand is perceived as young and lacking both experience and personality, unlike his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
Ozawa, known for his strong-arm tactics, is a political veteran who broke from the LDP in 1993 and was an instrumental figure in forming a non-LDP coalition government that year. He has formed and disbanded new parties since then before joining the DPJ in 2003.
Watanabe said Abe is at a disadvantage in rebuilding Japan's strained ties with China and South Korea, because he must shoulder the tension left by Koizumi's repeated contentious visits to Tokyo's war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.
Ozawa, on the other hand, has been active in building friendly relations with the neighboring countries.
Most recently, for example, in a July meeting in China with President Hu Jintao, the two agreed to set up an institution to hold regular dialogue between the DPJ and the Chinese Communist Party.
Regarding Japan-U.S. relations, both leaders stress the importance of the alliance.
"Putting weight on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is a matter of course for almost any political party in Japan," Watanabe said. "Japan has no other option -- we do not have a system that protects us on our own."
Domestically, the disparity in society is a key issue for both leaders. It has been said that under Koizumi, the economic disparity between urban and rural areas widened and many small and midsize companies suffered as a result.
While Abe has campaigned to give a "second chance" to those who have failed in business, Ozawa stresses the need for an "employment safety-net" to prevent failures from occurring.
Ozawa has called for establishing a system to turn nonregular employees into full-time regular staff and re-evaluate the traditional lifetime employment system.
"The difference is that where (Abe) is trying to provide equal opportunity . . . I imagine (Ozawa) wants to create a society where a second chance will not be necessary," Watanabe said.
A major test of power for both parties will be the House of Councilors election next summer. Critics say the LDP-New Komeito coalition may struggle badly and possibly lose its majority in the Upper House.
At present, the LDP holds 111 out of 242 seats and New Komeito has 24. The DPJ holds 82 seats.
For the DPJ, the election could be a turning point, said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor of political science at Chubu University in Aichi Prefecture.
Depending on how many seats the DPJ wins in the Upper House election, "it could be a step toward a change in government," Kawai said.
Without a majority, the ruling coalition would find it hard to pass many of its bills, Kawai explained, which would accelerate the deterioration of the LDP's power.
If the LDP suffers a big loss in the Upper House election, Abe may be pressured to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election.
"A change in government is natural" in a democratic country, Kawai said.
"And the opposition party is starting to come together and gaining strength," he said. "Voters may think it's time to give them a chance."