Seiji Maehara, the new president of the Democratic Party, has suffered a setback in arguably his most important first task as head of the largest opposition force: Choosing his secretary-general — the second in command within the party leadership.
On Tuesday, Maehara announced he will appoint Atsushi Oshima, a 60-year-old Lower House member elected from Saitama Prefecture, as secretary-general.
But sources said that earlier, Maehara had unofficially decided to tap former prosecutor Shiori Yamao for the position.
Reports that Maehara would choose Yamao reportedly stirred anxiety and drew complaints from party members, which is thought to have prompted Maehara to think again.
Yamao, who has been elected to the Lower House only twice, is seen as unfamiliar with party and election affairs.
Maehara’s about-face has put a question mark on his leadership ability as head of the DP, whose members often have failed to unite and have instead engaged in internal strife.
“First I’d like to extend an apology over having (everyone) worry about the personnel change,” Maehara told a meeting of DP lawmakers at the party’s headquarters.
The meeting then approved Maehara’s choice of party leadership, including former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano as deputy president and Lower House member Takeshi Shina as the party’s new policy chief.
Edano stood against Maehara in the Sept. 1 party presidential election. The appointment of Edano was seen as part of Maehara’s efforts to keep party members united.
“I’d like to firmly support the president and prove that the party is steadily going forward,” Edano told reporters later in the day.
At the outset of the meeting, Maehara said he believes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could dissolve the Lower House and that the next general election of the Lower House could be held as soon as Oct. 22, when three by-elections for the chamber are now planned.
“I want to share this understanding with all of you,” Maehara said.
He then called on party members to speed up efforts to hammer out specific details of fiscal and social welfare reforms in order to brace themselves for an election.
Maehara also pointed out that in any case, a Lower House general election will be held by December next year, when the term of current lawmakers in the chamber expires.
During the presidential election campaign, Maehara called for an expansion of social welfare services while asking people to bear more financial burdens, including a rise in the unpopular consumption tax.
Maehara has used the slogan “all for all” to refer to this new fiscal and social welfare policy. The DP should quickly establish specific details of this policy to prepare for the next election, he argued.
Political observers say Abe could dissolve the Lower House and call for a snap election at any time if he believes boosting the approval rate for his Cabinet to previous levels would be difficult.
The approval rate, a key indicator for Abe’s popularity among voters, plummeted last month partly due to scandals involving Okayama-based school operator Kake Gakuen.
More recent polls have shown a slight recovery. But according to a Kyodo News survey conducted over the weekend, the disapproval rate, now 46.1 percent, has once again surpassed the support rate, which stands at 44.5 percent.