Japan’s PM faces challenge for party leadership

The move is certain to distract Japan`s young govt from tackling challenges.

Tokyo: Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan faced a party leadership challenge from a scandal-tainted powerbroker on Thursday, raising the possibility of the country getting its sixth premier in four years.

Ichiro Ozawa, 68, said he would run for the presidency of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) next month in a move that spells more instability for the not yet year-old government.

Ozawa -- a major faction leader and veteran of backroom politics dubbed the "Shadow Shogun" -- announced his bid to oust Kan in brief comments to reporters, adding that he had the support of ex-premier Yukio Hatoyama.

"I have humbly decided to run in the leadership election after (Hatoyama) told me he would lend his full support," Ozawa said of the top ruling party post, which would traditionally see him elected by Parliament as premier.

The move is certain to distract Japan`s young government from tackling challenges such as dealing with a strong yen that is threatening a flagging economic recovery and reducing a huge mountain of public debt.

"For the time being, everything will be about politics, not policies," said Tomoaki Iwai, politics professor at Nihon University. "It will be difficult to take swift policy action to deal with currency and economic problems."

The DPJ -- which in a historic electoral landslide almost a year ago ended more than a half-century of nearly unbroken conservative rule -- on September 14 elects a party president, the post now held by Kan.

Ozawa, a former party leader, was seen as the architect of the election win and still commands the loyalty of many rookie members who owe their political lives to him.

But he has also become a liability with voters over political funding scandals in which several of his aides have been indicted.

Prosecutors have decided not to take Ozawa to court, but an official judicial review panel is still studying some claims against him and may yet decide to force prosecutors to build a criminal case.

Ozawa resigned from the party leadership over a year ago over one scandal, and stepped down again as the DPJ`s number two in June this year over another, on the same day Hatoyama resigned as premier.

The Hatoyama government had dived in opinion polls, in large part due to the mishandling of a row over an unpopular US air base on Okinawa island -- a dispute that upset Japanese voters as much as the Obama administration.

Kan, 63, took over as party chief and premier but was quickly weakened when his party lost its majority in an upper house election rout in July.

Kan pledged to fight for his job, telling lawmakers: "In this leadership election, I want to ask the Japanese people what kind of Japan we want to build. I want to appeal to all Japanese people."

If Ozawa were to win the DPJ leadership race, he would likely be voted in by Parliament as Japan`s third premier in one year and the sixth since September 2006 -- perpetuating Japan`s years of "revolving-door leadership".

Bureau Report

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