The ultimate goal of the Democratic Party of Japan to wrest power from the current ruling triumvirate is seen to mainly hinge on whether party leader Yukio Hatoyama can steer his party to victory in next summer’s House of Councilors election.
Hatoyama will formally be re-elected for a second term at a party convention today. When he shook hands with DPJ policy chief Naoto Kan and declared victory in the House of Representatives election in June, the DPJ’s target of taking the helm of government seemed a goal that could be reached.
But while the ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — lost nearly 60 seats in the general election, the DPJ only gained 32, indicating voters are not ready to put Hatoyama and his fellow party ranks in the driver’s seat.
At today’s convention, Hatoyama will attempt to project a strong image of the DPJ as a party of clean, youthful politicians unfettered to traditional interest groups and lobbies. In that sense, the road to the Upper House poll starts for the party today.
The DPJ leadership has underscored the significance of the Upper House race as being a stepping stone to becoming a ruling party.
“If we fail to prevent the ruling bloc from securing a majority, it will take another 10 years for the DPJ to rule,” since only half of the 252 Upper House seats are contested every three years, reckoned Hiroshi Kumagai, deputy secretary general of the DPJ.
But if the coalition were to fall short of a majority in the chamber, the Lower House would be dissolved for snap elections within six months, because the ruling camp would have trouble getting significant bills passed, he predicted.
“And that is when we will seize power,” Kumagai said.
However, he admitted there are several hurdles to overcome in order to achieve the goal — one being Hatoyama’s lack of strong leadership.
“What Hatoyama needs as a leader is the ability to integrate the group,” he said.
Meanwhile, Shigefumi Matsuzawa, leader of the group Dash no Kai, which consists of junior DPJ lawmakers, said the party’s Achilles’ heel is that it has yet to clarify its position on basic policies such as security issues and the Constitution.
“The DPJ can be a strong opposition force because all it needs to do is criticize what the ruling bloc does,” he said. “But to gain public trust and become a ruling party, we have to clearly show our stance on key policy issues.”
But while DPJ members are quick to acknowledge that such a clear-cut policy platform is necessary, the party has been grappling with the issue since its foundation in 1996 with little success.
Many observers point to the DPJ being a mix of members hailing from a wide spectrum of political groups, including the Social Democratic Party, the now-defunct Shinshinto and New Party Sakigake as being the main problem.
Sensing the need to map out a party position on key issues, Hatoyama said last month that he will wrap up a revised draft of the Constitution within two years and consider introducing a system for the public to directly elect a prime minister.
But Matsuzawa said the DPJ’s problem is not about conflicts among fractious groups but those among different generations.
“Younger politicians are willing to discuss issues such as the Constitution,” he said. “But some in the older generation consider it taboo to even talk about changing it.”
Yoshito Sengoku, chief of the DPJ’s planning department, agreed, saying he also feels the older generation is too conservative and reluctant to make changes.
When Hatoyama tried to wrap up a 10-year-plan on fiscal reconsolidation policies prior to the general election, the older ranks opposed it, saying the party should place priority on policy pledged to get the economy on a full-recovery track, he said.
The path to a revamped image remains rocky for the party, whose image-boosting campaign suffered a setback with this week’s arrest of lawmaker Joji Yamamoto, who allegedly kept 20 million yen the state paid as a salary for a woman registered as his secretary over a period of four years. He quit the party after the scandal broke.
The arrest of Yamamoto, who resigned from the Lower House Thursday, comes at a time when the DPJ was launching a campaign to promote political ethics in the wake of a bribery scandal involving former Construction Minister Eiichi Nakao.
The DPJ and three major opposition parties jointly submitted a bill in July to ban politicians from receiving goods and money in exchange for political favors.
But despite the Yamamoto scandal, some observers say the dozens of relatively youthful legislators who joined the DPJ fold in the Lower House election hold the key to attracting voters.
Out of the 127 DPJ members elected in that election, 95 were politicians who have been elected to the chamber no more than three times. In addition, the average age of Lower House DPJ members is 49.6, while that of the LDP is 57.4.
Many former bureaucrats — who have traditionally run for the Diet on the LDP ticket — also stood as DPJ candidates and won seats.
Tetsuro Kato, a professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University, said younger politicians who have no prior political affiliation may be able to change the DPJ’s image of being a scratch party.
“The key for the DPJ is whether these young politicians can come up with some uniqueness apart from their youthfulness that can appeal to the public,” Kato said.
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