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The Democratic Party of Japan elected young conservative Seiji Maehara as its new president Saturday, passing over veteran former party leader Naoto Kan after suffering a devastating defeat in the House of Representatives election last week.

Maehara, 43, defeated the 58-year-old Kan by a razor-thin count of 96-94 in open balloting among party members from both chambers of the Diet.

Two members abstained from the voting, held at a Tokyo hotel, and two others cast invalid votes.

By electing Maehara, the DPJ has put the task of rebuilding the party into the hands of a fresh face rather than a veteran liberal lawmaker who has already held the presidency twice.

The moment Maehara was announced as the winner, a stir and applause swept through the banquet hall.

“I’d like to pledge that I will devote myself completely to fulfill this job at the risk of my political life,” Maehara told the DPJ members immediately after being elected.

“I’ll work hard to measure up to people’s expectations by getting the whole party behind making a new start.”

Maehara later stressed at a news conference that his faceoff with Kan did not represent a generational division within the party.

However, he said he will place greater importance on creating a “meritocracy,” rather than adhering to experience or factional balance, and “put the right person in the right place” to reform the party.

“The people are questioning if the DPJ is really serious about taking the helm of government,” Maehara said. “(I’ll) first gather the party’s opinions together and let important issues be argued out in the Diet. That’s my fighting stance.”

With a special Diet session scheduled to be convened Wednesday, Maehara will face a rocky road with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, which together control more than two-thirds of the Lower House.

In last Sunday’s election of the 480-seat Lower House, the DPJ won only 113 seats. Before the election was called, the party held 177. The LDP boosted its strength to 296 seats from its pre-election strength of 212.

Serving as shadow Cabinet minister in charge of defense, Maehara is an expert on security issues and an advocate of revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution so that the Self-Defense Forces can play a greater role overseas in collaboration with Japan’s allies.

Maehara’s views, however, are in conflict with that of some dovish party members who oppose constitutional revision.

The DPJ vote Saturday was made necessary after Katsuya Okada resigned as DPJ chief over the party’s huge setback in the general election.

Maehara is also expected to face a difficult time maintaining solidarity in the party, which consists of conservative lawmakers and former Social Democratic Party members. The party is often divided between its younger-generation members, many of whom support him, and senior lawmakers who fear a radical generational change and support Kan.

“I think our party members staked (the party’s future) on the Maehara’s youth and ability” to break out of the party’s old habits, Okada said. “It is utterly necessary for each DPJ lawmaker and other rank-and-file members to back the new leader and stick together.”

“The only way left is to cooperate with each other under the new leader,” said DPJ heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who gave up running for the top spot Friday. “As (Maehara is) young, I’d like him to do his best to display leadership to get the DPJ into power as soon as possible.”

Maehara said he will lead the party to return to its origins by removing “vested interests” and factionalism.

Political critic Harumi Arima said Maehara’s determination to break away from backdoor politics and factionalism won the hearts of many undecided DPJ lawmakers.

His election as party head was not the result of a turn toward youth, Arima said. Instead, “many DPJ members have come to think the party must change after seeing how Koizumi won the public’s support” by repeating reform phrases.

“Many DPJ members must have thought about turning to a fresh new leader to avoid leaving the public with the impression that the party would repeat the same old things by electing Kan for the third time,” he said.

Maehara said the DPJ was routed in the election because it couldn’t come up with a counterproposal to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal reform bills in the Diet, and he admitted this was due to the influence of labor unions opposing postal privatization.

LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe said after the DPJ election he will be waiting to see how Maehara will try to disentangle the party from vested interests, including government and public workers unions, “as they are support groups of the DPJ.”

Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima expressed concern that the DPJ “may head toward a detrimental amendment to the Constitution.” The SDP is trying to keep Article 9 intact.

Japanese Communist Party officials said they will watch how the DPJ will demonstrate any difference with the LDP over such issues as constitutional amendment and tax hikes.

Maehara will serve out the remainder of Okada’s term until the end of next September.

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