The Democratic Party of Japan picked former trade minister Banri Kaieda as its new president Tuesday, a sign that the party may seek to join hands with Ichiro Ozawa, a former DPJ leader who left the party earlier this year, for the upcoming Upper House election.

Critics doubt, however, that Kaieda will be able to rebuild the party, which was crushed in the Dec. 16 Lower House election, saying its chances of increasing its seats in the Upper House poll are becoming slimmer.

Out of 145 votes cast in the DPJ presidential poll Tuesday, Kaieda won 90, while his only rival, former transport minister Sumio Mabuchi, received 54.

Instead of taking time to select its new leader by allowing the DPJ’s rank-and-file and supporters to vote, the party rushed to replace the unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda by holding a poll only among Diet members — 57 Lower House lawmakers that barely survived the December poll and 88 Upper House members.

“I stand here today without any self-interest. I don’t care about what happens to me, but the DPJ must not be erased from Japan,” Kaieda said. “The DPJ’s presence is important for the nation and for Japan’s democracy, and the world’s attention is on whether the DPJ will survive this ordeal.”

The new president sought cooperation from all DPJ lawmakers Tuesday, stressing the importance of rebuilding the party and regaining the public’s trust.

“I promise to exert myself to the utmost to rebuilding the party without any self-interest and I would like to ask for everyone’s support,” Kaieda said.

Kaieda, 63, who unsuccessfully ran against Noda in last year’s presidential race, managed this time to collect a large majority of votes, especially from the “nonmainstream” members who have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the way Noda and his executives had been running the party and the government.

The anti-Noda ranks have been critical of Noda’s successful push last summer to pass a bill to hike the sales tax. The unpopular move prompted some 90 DPJ lawmakers, including Ozawa, to leave the party.

Mabuchi, on the other hand, was backed by the pro-Noda camp, now a minority in the party, but he failed to expand internal support.

With Tuesday’s victory of Kaieda, who is considered close to Ozawa, speculation is growing that he may seek the kingpin’s cooperation in next summer’s Upper House election.

“The most important thing is the Upper House election, and in order to win, we need to cooperate with other opposition parties,” Kaieda said Tuesday without elaborating.

But doubts remain over whether tying up with Ozawa, often called the “shadow shogun,” would benefit the DPJ in the long run. Ozawa broke from the DPJ last summer to establish Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First), which later merged with Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan). His negative image partly resulted in Nippon Mirai’s painful defeat in the Dec. 16 poll.

In Tuesday’s race, Ozawa’s remaining allies, including DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi, played a key role in Kaieda’s win.

“Kaieda will leave a strong image of having been backed by Koshiishi, and I don’t think the DPJ will stand a chance against the Liberal Democratic Party in the Upper House poll,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University. “With Kaieda as the leader of such an inward-looking party, I think the chances for the DPJ to recover are 99 percent impossible.”

To put up a fresh image, Kaieda is expected to appoint popular DPJ policy chief Goshi Hosono as secretary general, the party’s No. 2 position.

A key step for the DPJ to rebuild itself is to differentiate itself from the LDP, said Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture.

For example, while the LDP has declared plans to go back to increasing public works spending despite the government’s snowballing debt, the DPJ should maintain its position that public works and other wasteful spending should be cut, the professor suggested.

“Instead of focusing on the party’s organizational reform like some are calling for, I think it is important to clearly determine the DPJ’s position on key policies. . . . Luckily, many of the DPJ’s rookie populists (who had weak electoral district platforms) lost in the election,” Narita said.

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