Japan PM to face fight for ruling party leadership

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A senior ruling party lawmaker announced today he would challenge Japan's prime minister for his job in an internal party election next month, raising the possibility that Tokyo's leadership merry-go-round is not over yet.

Japan has seen five prime ministers in three years. Prime Minister Naoto Kan took power in June after Yukio Hatoyama resigned just nine months into the job. He was toppled by public anger over his broken campaign promise to move a US Marine base off the southern island of Okinawa.

Now veteran powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa, who has been critical of Kan's performance, says he will run against the current leader for presidency of the Democratic Party in its September 14 election.

Ozawa's announcement introduces another layer of uncertainty to Japan's outlook at a critical time. Growth slowed sharply in the most recent quarter, and a sharp spike in the yen threatens to further weaken the country's export-driven recovery. A bitter fight between the two men could split the party, delaying government efforts to fortify the economy.

Ozawa, 68, is unpopular with the public but is one of the most powerful figures in Japanese politics. He is renowned as a backroom dealer and election strategist who was instrumental in the Democrats' historic lower house victory last year.

He served as party leader from 2006 to 2009, and as secretary-general under Hatoyama. He was forced to resign the No. 2 spot over a campaign finance scandal, though he has denied any wrongdoing. He remains under criminal investigation.

During a morning meeting, Hatoyama pledged his full support for Ozawa.

"I told the former prime minister that although I am unworthy, I will run in the leadership election," Ozawa said.

Kan, who has been in office less than three months, faces a divisive battle for power just a year after voters embraced the Democrats' call for change.

It's been a bumpy ride so far.

Following Hatoyama's resignation, the party lost its upper house majority in elections last month, and Kan has struggled to restore confidence in the Democrats. He must also respond to criticism that his administration has been slow to act against growing economic headwinds. Another stimulus package looks to be on the way, and greater political pressure on the central bank is likely to prompt another round of monetary easing next month.

Kan welcomed Ozawa's candidacy but challenged him to clarify what he would do as party leader and prime minister. If re-elected, Kan told a group of party supporters that he will "resolve with my life to devote all my time to the country without wasting a single second."

The public appears to be on Kan's side for now.

Earlier this month, a national telephone survey conducted by the Asahi daily showed that 56 percent of 1,960 respondents said Kan should be re-elected. More than three-quarters of respondents described Ozawa's rising influence within the party as an "unfavorable" development.

The newspaper did not calculate a margin of error, but a poll of similar size typically has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Ozawa's decision comes a day after he made headlines for calling Americans "simple-minded."

It was not clear what prompted the remarks at a political seminar, in which he otherwise paid tribute to Americans' commitment to democracy, saying it was something Japan should learn from.

"I like Americans, but they are somewhat monocellular," he said. "When I talk with Americans, I often wonder why they are so simple-minded."