GINOWAN, Okinawa — Prime Minister Naoto Kan retained his position Tuesday as head of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, an indicator that U.S. base realignment plans will go forward as proposed.
He defeated Ichiro Ozawa for party leadership by winning nearly 60 percent of available voting points after a fierce two-week battle for what one political observer said was a “fight for the soul of the party and the future of the nation.” The election means Kan also retains his position as prime minister.
Kan, 63, became prime minister in June when Yukio Hatoyama stepped down after failing to find a site outside Okinawa to relocate the U.S. Marine air units based at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. He supports the plan to move the Marine aircraft units to Camp Schwab, Okinawa, and build runways there stretching from the Henoko peninsula onto landfill in Oura Bay.
Those plans are expected to go forward now that his position as prime minister is secure.
In a post-election press conference, Kan said he has been working on the Futenma issue based on the U.S.-Japan agreement and at the same time to ease the U.S. military “burden” on Okinawa.
“I have been approaching the issue by doing everything I can and there will be no change in my approach,” he said.
Kan garnered 721 points to Ozawa’s 491 in the party’s proportional vote system based on ballots cast among the 342,493 general party members eligible to vote, the DPJ announced. A raw vote count was not immediately available.
In the Diet, which elects the prime minister, the two candidates were almost evenly split among DPJ members, with 412 points awarded to Kan and 400 to Ozawa.
Ozawa, 68, a backroom dealmaker known as the party’s “Shadow Shogun,” was credited with steering the DPJ to a landslide victory a year ago that swept the Liberal Democratic Party out of power after an almost unbroken 50-year rule. He was strongly supported by the DPJ’s Diet members and Okinawan DPJ members, who believed he could keep his promise to reopen talks with the U.S. on the Futenma relocation issue.
However, he is unpopular with the national general public and tainted by a funding scandal.
Before the election, Jeffrey Kingston, a Japan political expert at Temple University in Tokyo, warned that the DPJ would be “committing collective political suicide” if Ozawa was elected and subsequently became prime minister.
There would be so much animosity from within and outside the party that the Diet could be gridlocked, forcing a special election in the Lower House that could decide whether the DPJ would remain the majority party, he said.
During the campaign, the two focused on Japan’s faltering economy. Ozawa, the former party secretary general, said the country needed to increase stimulus spending. Kan stressed fiscal responsibility and job creation. His economic strategy was credited with the DPJ’s poor showing in Upper House elections in June after he suggested raising the consumption tax.
The campaigning ended with a meeting Tuesday afternoon of DPJ Diet members in Tokyo, who listened to the candidates’ final speeches before casting their votes. The votes of other party members and local assembly members were mailed to party headquarters over the weekend and also were counted Tuesday.
Although Tuesday’s party election went to the candidate supporting the agreement to close Futenma and move the Marine air units to Camp Schwab, there may still be local stumbling blocks to overcome.
On Sunday opponents of the plan in Nago, where Camp Schwab is located, won a 60-percent majority of the city assembly’s 27 seats. And both candidates in November’s election for governor Okinawa oppose the relocation, with incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima once a reluctant supporter of it and challenger Yoichi Iha, Ginowan’s mayor, calling for an immediate closure of Futenma moving the Marines off the island.
Okinawa’s governor has the power to veto filling in pristine Oura Bay with tons of landfill for the new air facility’s runways. Kan’s government hopes economic stimulus funds may convince Nakaima to change his mind and support the project.
Kan, after Tuesday’s votes were announced, called for the DPJ to unite in rebuilding Japan.
“Japan is currently in a difficult situation,” he said. “We need to rebuild Japan to be an energetic Japan once again and pass it on to the next generation.”
Kan’s victory was a good news for Japan, said Kazuya Sakamoto, professor of International politics at Graduate School of Law and Politics at the University of Osaka.
“It is a relief that he can stay in power,” he said, noting Japan has had three primeministers in the past year. “Had Ozawa won, he had to start his job [as prime minister] to wipe off his tainted image.”
Masashi Nishihara, retired president of the National Defense Academy and the president of a Tokyo-based think tank, said Kan’s win Tuesday “will make it easier for him to carry out his policies” as well as “follow through on the bilateral agreement on the Futenma issue.”
“How he will implement the plan is, however, a different story,” Nishihara said. “Under the present political environment on Okinawa, carrying out the project as planned could be extremely difficult.”
That was underlined by the reaction to Tuesday’s vote by Okinawa party members.
“Under the present circumstances, there’s just no way [the Futenma relocation] will be possible,” said Denny Tamaki, a DPJ member of the House of Representatives from Okinawa, who supported Ozawa. “The will of the Okinawa people is clear.”
Yoshio Shimoji, retired professor of the University of the Ryukyus, said Tuesday’s vote was disappointing.
“Prime Minister Kan will follow through the Futenma agreement,” he said. “But opposition on Okinawa is very strong. I do not think the Futenma issue will be resolved as Mr. Kan intends.”