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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010
Race is on: Ozawa to challenge Kan
Last-minute talks fail to find compromise
By ALEX MARTIN and JUN HONGO
Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa confirmed Tuesday he will run for DPJ president and thus prime minister, dashing party hopes that an internal power struggle can be avoided before the Sept. 14 election.
The race between Ozawa and Kan, the current DPJ president, is likely to leave a deep chasm among party members and destabilize the administration.
After days of concern over the impact of a head-to-head clash, the two failed to reach a backroom agreement to pave the way for Kan's uncontested re-election as party chief.
"I have decided to run in the presidential election after giving it much thought, and with the support from many of my friends," Ozawa said.
The party don, who many fear could bolt from the DPJ and engineer a political realignment if he loses, didn't clearly state why he is running. But he brushed off questions on whether his candidacy would fracture the DPJ, saying the two sides "should work together regardless of the outcome."
Kan, who officially announced his run for the party's presidency later in the day, also rebuffed media reports that the race could end up splitting the party.
"We ended our meeting with a handshake," Kan told reporters, repeating Ozawa's words that the DPJ will work in unity as the ruling party in charge of the government.
"Personally, I feel relieved," Kan said of the DPJ election, adding he is ready to push forward with his administration.
Despite the reassurances by the two candidates, the failure to avoid an epic clash casts a dark shadow over the party's future. Some had seen Ozawa's Aug. 26 announcement he would run for the top job as merely a ploy to retain his power over the government.
Many party members also hoped they could avoid a knockdown fight amid growing criticism that the government has been too slow in propping up the slumping economy and stemming the yen's surge against other currencies.
Before the two rivals went into their hastily arranged meeting, analysts expected Kan to offer Ozawa a key party role to get him to back off, including the re-establishment of a "troika" at the top between himself, Ozawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
Kan appeared to have modified his push to rid the government of Ozawa's influence following several meetings with Hatoyama, who had called for party unity and took on the role of mediator between the two camps.
A rumored solution to forestall the presidential election also included forcing key Ozawa adversaries to step down from the Cabinet, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku.
But on Tuesday the prime minister reiterated there were no discussions with Ozawa concerning appointments as a bid to find a compromise. Kan said the two sides will continue to cooperate when needed, but the election will be a spirited fight.
Kan, who said he hadn't spoken directly with Ozawa since taking office in June, met with close allies, including land minister Seiji Maehara, prior to going into the meeting with Ozawa. DPJ Secretary General Yukio Edano, who along with Maehara is known to have distanced himself from Ozawa, also met with Kan.
For his part, Ozawa met with Hatoyama and DPJ Upper House caucus chief Azuma Koshiishi prior to facing Kan. His close allies, including DPJ Diet affairs chief Kenji Yamaoka, proceeded with preparations for launching Ozawa's campaign headquarters at a Tokyo hotel.
Analysts say the race is too close to call at this point. Ozawa heads the largest faction within the DPJ, but his money scandal, which caused him to step down as DPJ secretary general only three months ago, is likely to be a major factor. Hatoyama's announced support for Ozawa is a favorable push, but Hatoyama's faction doesn't always follow in lockstep behind its leader.
Meanwhile, opinion polls show the public favors Kan as prime minister by a wide margin, but the DPJ leadership race will be decided with votes cast by DPJ lawmakers, regional officials and ordinary citizens with party membership.
Ozawa, the architect of past DPJ election strategies, is seen as having a strong influence over the party's Diet members.
Both Kan and Ozawa are scheduled to hold news conferences Wednesday to formally announce their platforms heading into the election.
The campaign officially kicks off Wednesday with voting set for Sept. 14.
The party's majority in the Lower House ensures that its leader will be prime minister.
If he wins, Ozawa will be the third prime minister since the DPJ took power last September.