Visionary reformist and political kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa was overwhelmingly elected leader of Japan's main opposition party Wednesday, making him a top contender for prime minister in the next elections.
The outspoken Ozawa, 53, defeated his sole rival and longtime political ally, former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, 60, nearly 2 to 1 in the New Frontier Party's nationwide primary vote. Ozawa called his victory a mandate from the people to carry out sweeping reforms that will send Japan safely into the 21st century and break the gridlock that plagues its politics.
"It is our job to make democracy take firm root in Japan's landscape," Ozawa said. "If Japan is to be stable in the 21st century, we must restore and firmly establish functioning politics."
Elections for the lower house of parliament, which decide the nation's prime minister, do not have to be called until June 1997. However, Ozawa has vowed to demand that Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama dissolve the lower house and call a snap general election immediately after passage of the 1996 budget. That could be as early as March.
That election will probably be a faceoff between Ozawa and Ryutaro Hashimoto, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, the most powerful group in Japan's three-party ruling coalition. After Ozawa's victory was announced, Hashimoto said he looked forward to having many good policy discussions with his rival.
Ozawa is a unique blend of politician and visionary, combining sometimes radical reformist policies. His tutelage came from Japan's most famed and corrupt conservative postwar politicians.
As a young comer, he was the protege of both former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who fell from power in a political scandal in 1974, and the legendary Liberal Democratic kingmaker Shin Kanemaru, who resigned his parliament seat in 1992 under criticism for associating with gangsters and accepting an illegal $4.1-million political donation, then was arrested and jailed the next year on tax evasion charges.
What has long been Ozawa's weakness in the eyes of his fellow politicians and citizens may now become his strength: He is a strong-willed man with clear ideas.
This has not been a good year for Japan, and though Ozawa has been blasted by his critics in the past for his bluntness and uncompromising manner, many feel that he may provide necessary leadership in an era when Japan seems to have lost sight of its goals and many are disillusioned with politics.
"People voted for forceful leadership in a time of uncertainty and stalemate," said former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who backed Hata.
Notorious for his back-room maneuvering skills in the halls of Japan's equivalent of the U.S. Capitol, Ozawa played a key role last year in the creation of the New Frontier Party, helping to engineer the merging of nine opposition parties.
He has long preferred shadowy deal-brokering to upfront dialogue and has shunned interviews with the Japanese press. But in recent years he has moved from the shadows into the limelight, advocating open policy debate as an antidote to the opaque, consensus-oriented culture that experts say has contributed to political alienation among voters here.
His approach to the media has changed too. Gone is his dour smile; instead, during this campaign season, Ozawa posed on railway platforms with children and smiled often during curbside speeches.
Though political rivals may despise him for his aggressive tactics, he seems to have won the hearts of many ordinary supporters with his vision of the nation that Japan should become.
In his book "A Blueprint for a New Japan," he explains his reformist ideas. Ozawa likens Japanese politics to a dinosaur with a small brain, and he harshly criticizes the system that drives politicians to achieve consensus at all costs, making swift decisions impossible and responsibility diffuse.
He is known for a number of radical policy proposals, including a rise in the consumption tax from the current 3% to 10% and the establishment of a special force for participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Wednesday's election was an Ozawa-inspired experiment in democracy. Normally only party members can vote for party president, but at Ozawa's suggestion the New Frontier Party opened up the election to anyone willing to pay $10.
A total of 1.69 million votes were cast--220,000 by party members, out of 490,000 who were eligible, and 1.47 million by citizens who contributed the $10 fee to join the primary. Party officials considered the turnout encouraging. The voting was conducted over a period of 11 days, starting Dec. 16.
Ozawa won with 1,120,012 votes to Hata's 566,998.
Ozawa, who advocates broad deregulation measures, has won the approval of many powerful business leaders, who congratulated him on his victory Wednesday night.