GINOWAN, Okinawa — Tuesday’s election for the presidency of Japan’s ruling party pits a behind-the-scenes power broker against a prime minister who has struck a compromising tone on dealing with the U.S. military on controversial base relocations.

Hanging in the balance, experts say, is whether the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will proceed as planned or once again become mired in internal politics.

Former Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, a politician called a “kingmaker” and nicknamed Japan’s “Shadow Shogun,” has promised to reopen talks on the plan to close Futenma in urban Ginowan and move its air units to a new facility at Camp Schwab on Okinawa’s rural northeast coast. He faces Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has pledged to go forward with the relocation project.

The experts say the internal party vote to determine the prime minister is too close to call.

Kan, 63, took office just two months ago after his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, stepped down after failing to keep a campaign promise to move the Marine air units off Okinawa. If he wins, he remains prime minister, and the Futenma relocation project should proceed as the two countries reaffirmed in May. But a win by Ozawa, 68, would necessitate a new election for prime minister in Japan’s Diet. Ozawa would be expected to win that vote because the DPJ still holds a majority in the Lower House.

Although Kan continues to lead Ozawa in public opinion polls, Ozawa has the backing of most of the party’s 412 Diet members, giving him a slight edge. Under the party’s rules, the Diet members have 412 votes, while 100 go to the party’s 2,382 local assembly members, and 300 are allotted to the 342,493 general party members based on a percentage of the votes cast in those two categories.

Jeffrey Kingston, a Japan political expert at Temple University in Tokyo, said Ozawa is among the country’s least popular politicians, but is such a backroom dealer that he could win the Diet’s vote. If he does, Kingston added, Japan will suffer.

“This is a fight for the soul of the party and the future of the nation,” he said Friday. “But to Ozawa, it’s all about his power. Nothing he’s doing here benefits the country.”

In an election for prime minister in Japan, each political party can nominate its own candidate. But because Ozawa has the support of DPJ insiders and the party has the majority of the votes in the Lower House, its candidate is expected to win, Kingston said.

“I may be naïve, but I believe at the end of the day, members of the DPJ are not going to conduct collective suicide and elect Ozawa,” he said. “He’s also burned a lot of people during his career, and for them, it will be payback time. There will be more gridlock in the Diet, and the DPJ could well not survive.”

Gerald Curtis, a senior fellow with the Tokyo Foundation, believes the prime minister, whomever it may be, has a lot of work to do to prove to the U.S. that he is up to the task of maintaining a strong security relationship with the U.S.

The relationship has been marred by Japan’s unstable leadership, he said in a recent posting on the foundation’s website. There have been five prime ministers in the past four years.

“The combination of political instability in Japan and the controversy that emerged over the issue of relocating the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma has made it difficult for the United States and Japan to engage with each other as fully as they should on larger issues,” Curtis said.

Relocating the Corps’ Futenma units has been a contentious issue since the U.S. and Japan included the idea as part of a broader plan to return more than 20 percent of the land used for U.S. bases on Okinawa. After 10 years of negotiations and several failed plans, the two countries agreed in May 2006 to build a new air facility on Camp Schwab to replace Futenma.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow and expert on U.S.-Japan relations, also with the Tokyo Foundation, said Thursday that “no one can predict” what will happen if Ozawa wins.

The security alliance with the U.S. is not one of Ozawa’s top priorities, Watanabe said.

“His ultimate goal is to maximize his power and influence,” he said

Concerning the Futenma relocation, Watanabe said Ozawa’s contention that the government needs to take a fresh look at the plan and negotiate a policy acceptable to Okinawans is merely designed to garner the most votes.

“He is not saying this as something he believes strongly,” Watanabe said. “At the point when he learns that it is not possible to pursue what he has said, he will change course. He will avoid taking a real risk of breaking off with the United States.”

But even if Ozawa loses, he’ll remain a force to be reckoned with.

“With the momentum Ozawa has, Kan will not be able to eliminate him,” Watanabe said.

Ozawa is supported by Okinawa’s DPJ members and would be the best person to negotiate a Futenma plan acceptable to all parties, said Denny Tamaki, a DPJ member of the House of Representatives from Okinawa.

“I feel confident of his continued support on the issue,” said Tamaki. “Without the consent of the people of Okinawa, it will not be possible for the government to carry out the present plan.”

Even if Kan is elected, the relocation plan, which may entail building runways over waters where endangered salt water manatees live, faces other hurdles. The governor of Okinawa must approve any construction that includes reclaiming land in Okinawa’s waters, and both candidates for governor oppose the relocation plan. If the governor refuses to sign off on the project, Tokyo would have to enact special legislation to get around such a veto.

“How the Futenma relocation issue is handled determines the course of Japan’s future,” said Yoshio Shimoji, a retired professor at the University of the Ryukyus and an Ozawa backer.

“If it is carried out in the line with what U.S. government demands, Japan’s dependent relations with the United States remain unchanged,” he said.

“I have great expectations that Mr. Ozawa is a person who can say what must be said, undefeated to the end,” Shimoji said. “If Kan is re-elected, our hope [for Futenma to be relocated outside Okinawa] will vanish.”

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