Seiji Maehara’s decision Friday to resign as Democratic Party of Japan president will probably test the largest opposition party’s solidarity and its conservative stance on defense, according to observers and DPJ sources.
Maehara has been one of the most conservative lawmakers in the DPJ on security policy.
He sparked debate in party by advocating revisions to the pacifist Constitution and calling China’s growing military might a “a realistic concern,” both reflections of views held by junior DPJ members who advocate more conservative defense policies and of its key foe, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
“I think (his resignation) will put the brakes on (conservative security policy) discussions” by younger DPJ members, said Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of politics at Hokkaido University.
Many people in the DPJ appear to want a more moderate leader to stabilize the scandal-hit party in Maehara’s wake, instead of a young gun who might trigger divisive policy debate.
Maehara has called for revising the war-renouncing Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective defense.
On this point, Maehara agrees with the LDP president, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, another advocate of constitutional revision. Since Maehara assumed the helm of the DPJ last September, Koizumi has repeatedly hinted he would be willing to form a “grand coalition” with the DPJ to revise the Constitution.
Maehara’s saying that this possibility was “99.99 percent negative” unlikely was enough to spark anxiety among veteran party members who feared he might favor an alliance with the LDP when deliberations begin on amending the Constitution.
“I think someone who can integrate the party both in terms of policy and (the generation gaps) should be the next leader,” Hirotaka Akamatsu, a DPJ House of Representatives member, told reporters Friday.
Former DPJ President Naoto Kan and heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa have emerged as potential successors to Maehara, although neither has indicated a willingness to take the post.
Kan has criticized Maehara’s foreign policy stance, in particular his inclination to label China a serious military concern.
DPJ leaders before Maehara, including Kan, had tried to differentiate themselves from Koizumi and the ruling coalition’s position by stressing their hopes to improve Japan’s ties with other parts of Asia, hoping to exploit the deterioration of ties with China and South Korea under Koizumi.
“I have had doubts about the (DPJ) consensus-building process in foreign and security policy based on the China concern argument promoted by Maehara,” Kan wrote on his personal Web site last month.
Some DPJ members appear to favor Ozawa, a veteran lawmaker who bolted from the LDP in 1993 and headed the Liberal Party until its merger with the DPJ in September 2003.
Ozawa is considered one of the few DPJ lawmakers who strongly appeals to conservative voters and big name recognition in the media.
The DPJ-Liberal Party merger helped the DPJ gain a lot of ground in the November 2003 general election, allowing it to top the LDP and become the No. 1 party in the Lower House in terms of proportional representation, but not total, seats.
Ozawa, however, is also known as a troublemaker who prefers behind-the-scenes dealings and a dictatorial management style.
Many DPJ lawmakers hesitated to accept the Liberal Party because of Ozawa’s record of stirring up internal strife his past parties.
During a news conference following Maehara’s announced resignation, now-departing DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said the party’s priority is to put aside factional fighting.
“What is important is to maintain party unity,” Hatoyama said, referring to the infighting that precedes the selection of a new president.
“We need to create a situation that will convince the people that the DPJ, for the first time, is united as one.”