As campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential election kicked off Friday, the single most daunting challenge shared by all three candidates was how to revive the nation’s biggest opposition party.
Competing for the Sept. 15 election are Renho, 48, Seiji Maehara, 54, and Yuichiro Tamaki, 47.
“This election has to be the start of a new generation,” said the front-runner Renho, who goes only by one name. She and Tamaki are among the DP’s third generation of politicians, while Maehara and current party chief Katsuya Okada are from the second generation.
“By becoming a new leader, I also want to inspire all the women out there who are trapped under the glass ceiling and striving to break it,” said Renho.
Tamaki, a third-term politician who entered the contest Friday morning after obtaining the necessary endorsement of 20 party members, said, “Many people have told me I’m too young and inexperienced to run. But unless a person like me displays an all-out effort to revolutionize the party, the public will never understand how serious the DP is about changing itself.”
Maehara, who headed the DP’s predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan, from 2005 to 2006, said he was better and wiser now.
He said he learned his lessons the hard way from the myriad missteps the DPJ committed during its stint in power from 2009 to 2012, which was marked by infighting and broken promises.
“We shouldn’t pretend we accomplished anything when we were in power,” he said. “We need to take a moment to grovel and apologize to voters. That’s a start.”
Public aversion to the DP remains strong. According to monthly surveys by NHK, the DP’s support rate is below 10 percent, versus nearly 40 percent for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Observers say the victory of a third-generation candidate such as Renho would go a long way toward addressing what has become a merry-go-round leadership roster occupied by the same old veterans, including Okada, Secretary-General Yukio Edano and Diet affairs chief Jun Azumi.
But dramatic change may be difficult to achieve under Maehara, said Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University who was a special adviser to former DPJ Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
Even if he wins, Maehara may be discouraged from pushing through his signature conservative policies out of consideration for a left-leaning intraparty faction supporting his bid, the professor said.
Maehara’s candidacy only became possible thanks to the backing of a faction headed by former land minister Akihiro Ohata, who originally hailed from the now-defunct Social Democratic Party of Japan.
“So he won’t be able to push ahead with his style as boldly as he hopes, nor is he fresh, generation-wise,” Narita said, adding that differences in ideology are not likely to be an issue in the election.
In fact, there appeared to be no significant policy differences among the three candidates as of Friday.
The trio all expressed plans to oppose a state-backed bill to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during the extraordinary Diet session slated for later this month, and all stressed a shift to greater investment in people, namely children and the elderly, to counter the shortcomings of Abe’s sputtering economic policies.
Although adamant that war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution must be preserved, though it has already been controversially reinterpreted, they said a more active debate is needed to re-examine the decades-old supreme law.
The candidates said they had no intention of forming a coalition government with the radically different Japanese Communist Party, but stopped short of ruling out the possibility of another electoral tie-up in the event a Lower House election is called.