The two candidates vying for the presidency of the nation’s largest opposition party faced reporters in their first debate Tuesday, with media outlets saying former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara has already won the support of a majority of the Democratic Party’s Diet members.

During the debate, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who is trying to win the support of local chapters and general voters, pledged to establish better channels of communication at the local level. He also argued that the Democratic Party should not “pander to a mass audience” and should instead focus on running a grass-roots campaign aimed at rank-and-file supporters.

“We should start with this election by apologizing to local assembly members and supporters who expected much from the DP,” Edano said.

For the Sept. 1 election, the party’s 145 Diet members and 128 candidates for the next national elections were allotted a total of 418 voting points to cast during the balloting to choose a new leader, while local assembly members and those in the rank and file also received 418 points. By Tuesday, two Diet members had left the party.

Of the remaining 143 Diet members, Maehara has already secured support from more than 80, giving him 160 points, while Edano, with the backing of less than 30 Diet lawmakers, was at around 60 points, according to the Asahi Shimbun daily.

If the findings prove true, the key factor in the race is likely to be how many points Edano will win locally.

According to media polls, since the party lost power in 2012, its support rate has dwindled below 10 percent, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is enjoying a support rate of around 40 percent.

Political observers agree that the DP is in crisis, as the party won only five seats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July. The crushing defeat highlighted the view that a majority of voters don’t see the DP as a viable alternative force that could defeat the LDP.

One of the most divisive issues separating Maehara and Edano is whether the government should raise the unpopular consumption tax to 10 percent from 8 percent in October 2019 as is planned.

Maehara said the rate should be raised to cover growing costs for social security and other measures that redistribute wealth to the people, while Edano said the timing is not right and would not likely garner taxpayer support given the still-staggering economy.

Edano suggested the government should instead issue more government bonds to temporarily cover growing costs for the public nursing insurance system and day care services for children.

“It’s true we need to ask the people to shoulder a fairer share of the financial burden to improve social security services,” Edano said. “But realism is important in politics.”

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