The drubbing taken by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan on Sunday left it with just 57 seats and one option: to rebuild.
That is expected to be easier said than done.
The DPJ had 230 seats before Noda dissolved the lower chamber and lost 173, including an unprecedented eight incumbent Cabinet ministers.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura was the first minister ousted.
“The election results were very severe for the DPJ, but that was the people’s judgment and we must take it seriously,” Fujimura said Monday morning. “We must analyze the reason why we lost so thoroughly and see how we can use these lessons (to rebuild) . . . including in the presidential election, which will be held because Prime Minister Noda has announced he is resigning.”
Fujimura was followed out the door by education minister Makiko Tanaka, the outspoken daughter of late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Finance Minister Koriki Jojima and internal affairs minister Shinji Tarutoko.
Ex-farm minister Michihiko Kano, former health minister Yoko Komiyama and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku also failed to get re-elected.
The rout, however, was mitigated by reprieves for other key members, including former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, former Lower House Speaker Takahiro Yokomichi and former internal affairs minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi, who all lost their single-seat battles but managed to win seats anyway via proportional representation.
Noda expressed his “deepest regret” over the young party’s bruising defeat and immediately announced Sunday evening that he would step down as president.
The DPJ is set to hold an extraordinary presidential election as soon as Saturday. Some of the names being floated as candidates are DPJ policy chief Goshi Hosono, deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada and national strategy minister Seiji Maehara.
There is some hope the popular Hosono, 41, who was in charge of handling the Fukushima crisis, will step up as the DPJ’s next leader because Okada and Maehara have led the party before and lack a fresh public image, political observers said.
“I think that Hosono would become a leading candidate for the DPJ. He is a fresh face who can rebuild the DPJ. . . . It would be just like a merry-go-round if the DPJ chooses Okada or Maehara,” said Norhihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture.
No matter who the DPJ elects, the party, now just a shadow of itself, will have a difficult time making its presence felt in the Lower House, where the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito now command more than two-thirds of the seats. Making things more challenging will be newcomer Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), which is nearly level with the DPJ at 54 seats.
The incoming LDP-led government does not have a majority in the Upper House, but the Constitution stipulates that bills rejected in that chamber can be passed with a two-thirds vote in the Lower House.
Narita pointed out that the opposition camp has had too much power in the Diet, which created legislative gridlock by preventing bills from being passed. Since the LDP was knocked off its throne in August 2009, it has done everything in its power to block the DPJ from passing legislation and implementing policies to regain control of the government, he said, even in the middle of the March 2011 disasters.
Noda stressed Sunday evening that the DPJ would not follow such tactics, adding the party will cooperate with the LDP and New Komeito on certain policies, including the tax and social security reforms the three parties agreed upon earlier.
“Japan is at an important turning point and we will cooperate on a policy basis and not prioritize political power struggles. But at the same time, it is the job of the opposition parties to keep a stern eye (on the LDP) so it does not take the wrong route,” Noda said.
International concern has already spread over the hawkish LDP leader, Shinzo Abe, who has expressed his intention to revise the war-renouncing Constitution so Japan can officially rename the Self-Defense Forces the National Defense Force and enable the military to engage in collective self-defense, which is prohibited under the current interpretation of the charter.
Pundits said the DPJ could consider forming an alliance with other parties to prevent this rightward tilt, including approaching the pacifist New Komeito, which has already expressed strong concern about the hawkish stance of its longtime coalition ally.
Surugadai University’s Narita said the DPJ should focus on rebuilding to determine the direction it wants to take and prepare itself for a second chance, although it may be a while, to retake the reins of power.
“The LDP is trying to go back to its old days of increasing public works projects and choosing a nationalistic leader in an era of globalism, completely lacking compatibility with the times. I don’t think a government that causes friction with the international community will last forever, and the DPJ needs to firmly rebuild the party to be ready to fight as the counterforce,” Narita said.