Conservative lawmaker Seiji Maehara was elected president of the Democratic Party on Friday, potentially fueling moves toward an opposition realignment that could lead to the advent of a new challenger to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition.
Maehara, a 55-year-old Kyoto native, faces the onerous task of reviving the opposition party that is arguably in the throes of an existential crisis as it grapples with chronically lackluster popularity.
To many voters, Maehara is a familiar face. He has held multiple portfolios including foreign minister when the Democratic Party of Japan, the DP’s predecessor, was in power between 2009 and 2012.
“We need to change the situation where the Liberal Democratic Party is the only viable party voters can choose,” Maehara told the party’s convention Friday. “Let us return to power again.”
Maehara beat liberal Yukio Edano, his sole contender, by a vote of 502 to 332.
But to his dismay, there were eight blank ballots cast — a potential statement of protest against the two veterans who played a central part in mishandling the rookie DPJ’s first three-year stint in power.
“I thought this was going to be a very difficult ride,” Maehara said after hearing the results.
The DPJ’s stint in power, fraught with unfulfilled promises and internal feuds amid a triple disaster, left voters so disappointed that the opposition party’s support rate sank so low that it hardly deserves to be called a viable opposition party.
Even when Abe’s Cabinet saw its popularity plunge after a string of ministerial gaffes and scandals earlier this summer, the DP’s approval ratings failed to show any substantial benefit.
This will not be Maehara’s first attempt to fill the shoes of a leader. He was elected president in 2005 but was forced to resign a year later over an email scandal.
Throughout the campaign, Maehara called for Japan’s transformation into what he terms an “all for all” society in which a heavier tax is levied in exchange for a more robust welfare and social security policy.
Of particular concern now is what approach he will take to the idea of a tie-up with Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) — an upstart regional party founded by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. In July, the fledgling party clobbered Abe’s LDP in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.
Masaru Wakasa, a staunch Koike ally, recently established a political organization — Nippon First no Kai (Japan First) — a move likely to serve as the basis of the new pro-Koike party at the national level.
On Friday, Maehara said he will not rule out the possibility of coordinating with other opposition forces — presumably a reference to Wakasa’s new party — “as long as we’re on the same page in terms of ideology and policy.”
Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare, said Maehara’s victory now puts the party at a crossroads in its bid for political survival.
The DP’s most viable option, he said, is to refurbish itself as a “pro-Koike” party.
“Japanese voters are so disillusioned with the way the DPJ behaved during its time in power that they have no expectations left for them,” Kawakami said. Jumping on the Koike bandwagon, he said, is one of the few options left to recapture voters’ attention.
“Maehara’s victory will definitely accelerate the DP’s effort to attract conservative non-LDP supporters who are dissatisfied with the current politics” under Abe, he said.
The Maehara-Wakasa tie-up, if realized, will point to the advent of a fresh force against Abe. But at the same time, the new DP leader’s conservative ideology may in fact expedite Abe’s efforts to achieve his lifelong goal: revising the pacifist Constitution.
“Both Maehara and Koike support the idea of amending the Constitution. So that means even if the new joint force poses a threat to the LDP in a next Lower House election, it doesn’t necessarily put the kibosh on Abe’s plan to change the charter. It could even encourage it,” Kawakami said.
Maehara is a security hawk who is in his eighth term as a Lower House lawmaker. He favors closer ties with the United States as well as a more robust defense policy.
He is also known for his overtly anti-communist views, having once likened the Japanese Communist Party to a “termite” that eats away at the foundation of his party. In declaring his candidacy last month, he suggested a rethink of the DP’s electoral ties with the JCP in fielding joint candidates for elections.
The DP has hemorrhaged prominent lawmakers in recent months, including conservatives Akihisa Nagashima and Goshi Hosono, both of whom cited the DP-JCP tie-up as the reason for their decision to bolt.