The Democratic Party officially launched on Monday the contest to select its next leader, with the two contenders saddled with the task of reviving a party grappling with an exodus of lawmakers and the sweeping rise of a new political force.
Vying for leadership role in the biggest opposition party’s Sept. 1 election are former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Maehara, a hawk in the ideologically diverse DP, said he sees the leadership election as a chance to turn the party into a viable alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Japanese people are in the situation where the only viable party they can vote for is the LDP,” he said.
This will be Maehara’s fourth attempt to secure the top role. He won once in the past, serving as head from 2005 to 2006 of what was then the Democratic Party of Japan.
Edano, meanwhile, is a first-time contender and a well-known liberal.
Like Maehara, Edano emphasized the need for the DP to become a stronger counterbalance to the LDP, but he took a more decisive line against the Abe administration.
“A sense of crisis and anger is my greatest motivation,” Edano said, referring to recent cronyism allegations leveled at Abe.
The rich experience that both Maehara and Edano bring to the table is a stark contrast from their predecessor, Renho, who stormed into the presidency in September on vows to use her youth and gender to spruce up the party’s tattered image.
Her image makeover, however, largely failed to resonate with voters, with the party’s popularity consistently languishing below 10 percent while the LDP’s support has remained at around 40 percent.
The DP’s plight culminated with its crushing defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in early July, prompting Renho to announce her resignation to take responsibility.
In declaring his bid, Maehara espoused Japan’s shift to what he calls an “all-for-all” society, where a heavier tax will be levied in exchange for more robust welfare policies offering provisions such as free education and greater investment in elder care.Edano, however, said he opposes a consumption tax hike in the immediate future, saying the economy is not strong enough to justify the move. He instead sought to differentiate himself from his rival by pushing to the fore his anti-nuclear stance, pledging to submit a bill to slash Japan’s dependence on nuclear power to zero by the end of this year.
Whoever wins the race will face the tough task of holding together a party that some say is on the verge of splitting after hemorrhaging a number of lawmakers.
In April, veteran conservative Akihisa Nagashima bolted the party, followed by the surprise exit earlier this month of fellow conservative Goshi Hosono, who cited among other reasons his opposition to the DP’s recent electoral tie-up with the Japanese Communist Party.
Lawmakers Kenzo Fujisue, Hiroyuki Yokoyama and Takatane Kiuchi have tendered their resignations from the party as well.
Further adding to the DP’s headaches is the advent of an upstart regional party headed by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
Speculation is rife that Koike’s Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) will soon make a foray into national politics. Masaru Wakasa, a key Koike ally, recently announced the establishment of a political organization called Nippon First no Kai (Japan First). The move is largely seen as a harbinger of Tomin First’s bid to go national.
Of prime importance for the new DP leadership will be how to approach the national equivalent of Tomin First. A move to join forces could shake up the current opposition framework, possibly presenting a fresh threat to the LDP.
Edano took a dim view Monday of a future tie-up with a pro-Koike party, but Maehara signaled his willingness to collaborate.
With Koike known as a conservative, Edano said it’s likely the new party, if founded, would complement the LDP rather than challenge it. “I think they’re in a different position to us,” Edano said.
Maehara, meanwhile, lauded Koike for her efforts to overhaul Tokyo politics, which she has claimed is rife with “black box” opacity.
“I will make a decision after studying their policy platform, based on the belief that we will collaborate with any force as long as we’re on the same page in terms of policy and ideology,” he said.
Edano and Maehara also differ on whether to stick to the DP’s current tie-up with the JCP in forthcoming Lower House elections. Maehara, known for his anti-communist views, said he will reassess the relationship, while Edano said he wants to do his best to find common ground with JCP members.
Among those eligible to vote in the election are DP lawmakers, assembly members, registered party members and supporters from across the nation. Maehara is believed to have secured support from most of the factions in the DP, putting pressure on Edano to court local voters for backing.