AS one political pundit in Tokyo put it early this month, Ichiro Ozawa is not the kind of politician to contest an election unless he knows he is going to win. And so it was.
Mr. Ozawa, Japan's most effective political reformer, has until now preferred closed-door power brokering to the klieg lights of national leadership. By prevailing in an oddly contrived race for the presidency of the opposition New Frontier Party (NFP), Ozawa yesterday became its leader in name as well as in fact.
Ozawa's victory demonstrates his time-tested skills at organizing votes, casts some doubt on the conventional wisdom that he is too mistrusted to win widespread support, and puts him a step closer to becoming prime minister.
Perhaps most important, Ozawa's out-front leadership of the NFP will bring some ideological clarity to Japan's murky and inchoate political scene.
He and his supporters are touting the outcome of the party contest as an endorsement of Ozawa's advocacy of thorough economic reform and his vision of a more internationally active Japan.
Yoneo Hirata, a member of parliament and an Ozawa organizer, says the results are a "call for Ozawa" and an expression of voters' desire for a strong decisionmaker.
The party allowed all citizens to cast a ballot, whether or not they were NFP members. The only conditions were payment of a 1,000 yen ($10) fee and a willingness to record one's name and address.
Ozawa's only opponent was former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata. The two have long been allies, but Mr. Hata announced during the run-up to the election that if he were chosen party leader, he would not reappoint Ozawa to the powerful post of secretary-general. That forced Ozawa to run himself or risk obscurity.
Some 1.7 million people took part, with Ozawa winning by a 2-to-1 margin. Only half a million of the voters were party members.
"Ozawa is very good,'' says Yukio Matsuyama, a former editorial director of the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading liberal newspaper, citing the politician's long study at the elbows of former Prime Ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Noboru Takeshita. "He has an inherited vote-getting ability."
Japan is in the midst of a years-long process of replacing the cold-war-era political structure symbolized by men such as Mr. Takeshita and the late Tanaka. Ozawa was nurtured by these stalwarts of the venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but left the party in 1993 and effectively ended 38 years of LDP rule.
Although his past as an LDP member - and his direct, occasionally arrogant style of speech - generate antipathy among many Japanese, he has styled himself as a reformer. He and other reformers say they want to create a brand of politics that is more responsive to voters and less beholden to Japan's bureaucracy.
Ozawa is one of America's closest allies in Japan's political top tier, and he advocates the kind of deregulation and international involvement for Japan that Washington also supports.
It remains to be seen whether this party election means he can unite the NFP behind these policies. Hata and other more liberal NFP leaders will likely fight him on certain policy matters. But analysts say that a large defection from the NFP is also unlikely, since Japan's reformed electoral system inhibits party switching before a general election.
By some analysts' measure, such an election is long overdue, since the current coalition government, which includes the LDP, is a mismatch of onetime ideological opponents. A widespread unwillingness to face the voters any time soon, however, has allowed the government to stay in power.
Countdown to 1997
In Japan's next general election, perhaps in mid-1996 but definitely before mid-1997, Ozawa and the NFP will know whether their policies are what the country has been waiting for. An NFP victory would give Ozawa a shot at the premiership.
But, says Kuniko Inoguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University, "it's not clear that what the Japanese political milieu is looking for is the kind of alternative that is crystallizing today." Mr. Matsuyama says the NFP has no chance of winning an outright majority.
That could mean the reemergence of outright rule by the LDP, which is already gearing up for national elections. The LDP has also aggressively criticized NFP's connections to a politically organized religious group, the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization. The country is still recoiling from terrorist attacks by another religious group, Aum Shinri Kyo, that were part of a quixotic but deadly attempt to topple the government.
In any event, Ozawa's election means that Japan at least will have more clearly defined options. "I think this result," says Yasuhisa Shiozaki, an LDP member of Japan's upper house of parliament, "will be a good thing for Japanese politics."