The race for the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan turned personal on Friday, with deputy leader Katsuya Okada accusing one of his two rivals of flip-flopping over a possible merger with other opposition parties.

Okada said Goshi Hosono had proposed establishing a new party together with Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and the now-defunct Your Party, just a few days before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House in November. He said Hosono now rules out such a realignment and called on Hosono to explain the change.

“There is a huge gap between what he said just before the dissolution of the chamber (and what he says now). Lawmakers must take responsibility for what they say,” Okada, a former foreign minister, told journalists in Tokyo on Friday.

“This is an election to choose the leader, so we are questioned about our qualifications as leader,” he said. “And if he says something different from what he said about 50 days earlier, I believe he owes voters an explanation.”

Whether to push for a merger with other opposition forces is one of the key issues in the race. All three candidates — Okada, Hosono and former health minister Akira Nagatsuma — say the DPJ needs to cooperate with other opposition parties in the Diet and during elections. But while Okada and Nagatsuma are reluctant to promote a merger with Ishin, Hosono is seen as more open to it.

Meanwhile, Hosono, a former environment minister, said a merger was only an idea that came up in talks with Ishin. He said he was simply exploring ways for the party to win as many seats as possible in the December general election.

Stressing that his goal remains to revitalize the DPJ and to consolidate lawmakers who share similar views, Hosono said his stance remains unchanged.

“It was just an idea. Back then, many of us were thinking about ways to survive the general election. And if we had any idea, I think we would need to tell that to the appropriate party members,” Hosono said.

“If we want to take power, we have to gather together people who share the same view. In other words, we cannot join hands with people with different views,” Hosono said.

Nagatsuma said the DPJ must focus on rebuilding the party. Now is not the time to think about merging with another party, he said.

The election takes place on Jan. 18. It is the first DPJ presidential election where votes by the party’s rank-and-file members and supporters will outweigh those of the party’s Diet members. Combined with votes cast by the DPJ’s local assembly members, the rank and file will represent about two-thirds of the total.

Whichever candidate secures more than 50 percent of the votes will win. If none achieves this, the two with the most votes will undergo a runoff vote held by the Diet members.

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