After taking the helm of the Democratic Party of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama will have no breathing space at all as he attempts to lead the main opposition party back into position to take the pivotal Lower House election it had been favored to win.
Political observers say some of the major tasks Hatoyama faces include uniting the party by mending ties with rival Katsuya Okada and his supporters, polishing policies to convince voters it can run the government, and demonstrating initiatives of his own instead of relying on former President Ichiro Ozawa.
Since Hatoyama has stressed that he will pick up where Ozawa left off, he will have to work hard to differentiate himself and re-energize the DPJ, said Yu Uchiyama, who teaches political science at the University of Tokyo.
The DPJ was riding high until it was blindsided by an unusual and untimely fundraising scandal that targeted Ozawa’s chief aide in connection with an alleged Political Funds Control Law violation involving fully documented donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co.
Ozawa reluctantly resigned Monday to avoid hurting the party ahead of the general election, which must be held by fall.
“It’s not good if it gives voters the impression that things are the same as in Ozawa’s day,” Uchiyama said.
When he threw his hat into the ring, Hatoyama denied allegations that he was merely “Ozawa’s puppet” and brushed off further Ozawa-linked jabs after the election.
“The policies from Ozawa’s presidency aren’t wrong,” Hatoyama said.
Under Ozawa’s leadership, the DPJ wrested control of the Upper House from the ruling coalition in 2007 by running on policies that focused on people’s livelihoods, a strategy that struck a chord with voters, Hatoyama said.
As for how to separate his policies from Ozawa’s, however, Hatoyama only said that he will add his own colors to the DPJ’s platform.
Some said the DPJ’s short election schedule and voting restrictions may have planted a seed of discontent within its ranks that will make it difficult to rally around Hatoyama.
Masaru Kohno, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said that from the Okada side the race was quite problematic since voting was limited to Diet members.
“I think this will stir up major discontent within the DPJ, especially at the grassroots level,” he said.
In the public eye, media polls indicate that Okada is more popular. So a longer election schedule and more liberal voting terms allowing participation by DPJ members and supporters might have benefited Okada.
Although some of the party’s Diet members opposed the logistics of the election, the DPJ executive board, which includes Ozawa, reportedly overruled their objections.
At the post-election news conference, however, Hatoyama denied he and Ozawa conspired to force a quick election by limiting eligible voters to Diet members. He said the decision was made because the Diet is in session and the party had to pick a new leader swiftly.
“I thought that we should never create a political vacuum by not having a leader, even for a single day. Ozawa had the same thought,” he said.
Hatoyama cited precedent by recalling the fast but limited vote held in 2006, when Seiji Maehara resigned as president while the Diet was in session.
“This is not something to be criticized,” Hatoyama said.
Waseda’s Kohno remained unconvinced.
“I wonder if those people can really support the DPJ (in the general election), which will be a big issue for the party. Even though they stress the importance of the party’s unity, it’s just among those with Diet seats, not other members and supporters,” he said.
Hatoyama will have to manage a party with some dissatisfied members, Kohno said.
No matter who is the leader, the DPJ’s biggest goal in the general election is to take control.
“The DPJ wants the issue of a change in government power to be the focus of the general election,” said Hiroshi Hirano, a political science professor at Gakushuin University. He added that Hatoyama therefore will need to make that point clear to the voters.
In doing so, Hirano said that it is important for the DPJ to show voters it can come up with realistic policies ranging from foreign diplomacy and security to the economy and reconstruction of Japan’s finances.
The change in the DPJ’s leadership may lead to more calls within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to do the same and replace unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso.
But LDP Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda ruled out that option Wednesday, saying there is no need to panic. He stressed that the LDP would follow Aso throughout the election.
Realistically, Hirano said, it will be difficult for the LDP to oust Aso unless he makes some crucial mistakes, since his policies seem to have been recognized by the public recently, a development that has helped his popularity recover somewhat.
For the LDP, the worst scenario would have been for the DPJ to hold a constructive, nationwide presidential election over the course of a week, which could have triggered a DPJ boom, Kohno said.
“It did not happen, so I think the worst was averted,” he said.