As of two days ago, the race to replace Kan Naoto as president of the Democratic Party of Japan officially began.
First out of the blocks was former Minister of the Environment Ozawa Sakihito, who released a policy statement and a declaration of his candidacy for the presidency of the DPJ on Wednesday. Among the policy recommendations he is making are 1) the study of Japan participating in collective security arrangements in areas limited to the Far East, 2) for the government and the Bank of Japan to target an inflation rate of 1% to 3% per annum and 3) for the reconstruction of areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami be based on the concept of environmentally sound communities.
Second among the potential candidates was Mabuchi Sumio, the former minister of transport. He paid a social call on a group of first- and second-termers, most of whom are still close to former party leader Ozawa Ichiro. During the meeting he made all the proper sounds for a candidate representing the younger generation of DPJ lawmakers, including about hating the government recommendation of a 10.3 trillion tax hike in order to pay for the reconstruction of the devastated areas of the northeast. Later when a reporter asked Mabuchi whether he intended to run for party president, he replied, "Each member of the DPJ has a duty to ask himself or herself, 'If I were to run for party leader, what would be my philosophy?'" That Mabuchi will soon publish an article outlining his thoughts on what kind of leadership Japan needs in a monthly magazine completes the circle on whether he is running or not, without a formal announcement.
That Ozawa and Mabuchi are first out of the blocks is not surprising. Ozawa is burdened with his last name, which gets him confused with the far more famous Ozawa Ichiro. As for Mabuchi, he has only three elections to the Diet – far too few for a formal candidate for the party's top post. He is also the response to the question “Wait, wasn’t Mabuchi the guy who resigned his post as Minister of Transport after the opposition-controlled House of Councillors censured him over the government’s handling of the Chinese fishing vessel collision? He is the one who will expected to try to work with LDP- and the New Komeito in passing legislation?" – the only answer to which seems to be "Yes, he has some issues. But he has such great hair!"
Beyond Ozawa and Mabuchi, there is a host of candidates, most of whom are keeping their heads down. Minister of Finance Noda Yoshihiko, Minister for National Strategy Gemba Koichiro and Minister of Agriculture Kano Michihiko have to remain silent because they are members of Kan’s Cabinet – though Noda has recently not taken pains to avoid looking bored at Cabinet meetings. Edano Yukio was once seen as a shoo-in thanks to his performance as the Cabinet's chief spokesman in the initial days and weeks after the March 11 disasters. His star as faded somewhat as the government has had to make excuses for falling behind the curve on such issues as the actual locations of the most radioactive areas around the Fukushima plant and the now national disaster of the feeding of contaminated rice straw to beef cattle.
In answer to question of who would be the people's choice in the non-existent national election of a DPJ leader, Kyodo News found respondents to its poll answering this way (all numbers are percentages):
Maehara Seiji 21.2
Okada Katsuya 15.8
Edano Yukio 15.6
Haraguchi Kazuhiro 3.9
Noda Yoshihiko 2.9
Ozawa Sakihito 2.3
Mabuchi Fumio 1.6
Sengoku Yoshito 1.6
Gemba Koichiro 1.3
Kano Michihiko 0.7
Tarutoko Shinji 0.6
Somebody Else 3.2
Don't Know/Can't Say 29.3
Maehara comes out the surprise winner – surprise because he not doing much of anything nowadays and he has the reputation of being a quitter when the chips are down (see the phony email fiasco and the Korean campaign contribution). In this poll he is probably benefiting from votes of those who in a national selection of leaders usually plunk down for Liberal Democratic Party members and tough talkers Ishiba Shigeru and Ishihara Nobuteru – Maehara being a hawk himself when it comes to security policy.
Nevertheless, Maehara will definitely be in the running when the time comes for truly viable candidates to step forward. He has the name recognition and ability to perform on camera necessary for the premiership in the post-Koizumi era; has served in several important party leadership and Cabinet positions; and is not really hated by anyone. He will also probably see this as his best chance of grabbing the post of party leader (and some of his dignity back) before even younger DPJ legislators start making their moves upward through the party ranks.
Okada, despite the seemingly high level of public support, has a near zero chance of running for the top spot. First, as the party secretary general he bears equal blame with Kan for the party’s recent string of electoral failures and current poor electoral chances. Second, he completely sold out the party’s core program of payments for families with children, calling it "a bit too indulgent." Amongst the party’s younger rank-and-file and in the prefectural party offices, Okada's name is mud.
Haraguchi is seen as the stalking horse for the pro-Ozawa Ichiro forces inside the party – forces the current leaders have been at pains to exorcise from having significant influence on party affairs. Sengoku is seen as too much the insider and is inconceivable as someone the LDP and the New Komeito could work with. Tarutoko, despite his strong showing against Kan in the party leadership contest of June 2010, is still much the non-entity he was back then. He may once again attract the interest of Ozawa Ichiro and former PM Hatoyama supporters, but these are fissioning forces in DPJ internal politics.
All of which avoids the 363.6 kg gorilla in the room as regards the DPJ leadership contest: whomsoever wins the party leadership election and subsequently the post of prime minister will still be stuck with a do-nothing LDP-New Komeito-Your Party majority in the House of Councillors which will stymie the passage any and all legislation other than budgets. Despite LDP and New Komeito cooing to the contrary, there will be no cooperation with a DPJ prime minister, no matter what his (and it will be a ‘his’) name will be.
So despite the flurry of activity and the breathless prose from the political press, the post-Kan song will remain the same.
Later - Lucy Craft has produced a report (listen to it rather than read it; she has a sparkling voice) that comes the same conclusion.