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DP leader Seiji Maehara to resign; Atsushi Oshima emerges as candidate to run Kibo no To

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Seiji Maehara, president of what was once the biggest opposition Democratic Party, announced Friday he will resign to take responsibility for his “lapse in judgment,” which caused disarray among the opposition and helped Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition score a sweeping victory in Sunday’s snap election.

“I feel excruciating responsibility for failing to form a united opposition front against the ruling bloc and, as a result, allowing it to maintain a two-thirds super-majority” in the Lower House, a contrite Maehara told a party-wide meeting with rank-and-file members of the DP’s Upper House caucus and some independents.

“In the world of politics, results mean everything, but I failed to make the right decision . . . I would therefore like to resign as president,” Maehara said, before bowing deeply.

Maehara’s resignation marks a bitter outcome for his political gamble, which few in the DP — until recently Japan’s biggest opposition party — could have anticipated when it held its general meeting last month. At the gathering, the party approved what appeared to be a life-saving deal proposed by Maehara for the struggling DP: to let all of its Lower House members join popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s upstart party, Kibo no To (Party of Hope), and run under her banner for the Oct. 22 election.

But as it turned out, the plan backfired disastrously, not only sowing a divide in the DP but resulting in the loss of a sizable number of DP lawmakers who migrated to Kibo no To. Still reeling from its poor election showing, Kibo no To on Friday scrambled to get its tentative leadership team up and running. In a general meeting of those who survived Sunday’s poll, the new party decided to cast ballots for Shu Watanabe, a Kibo no To member elected from Shizuoka Prefecture, to represent the party in a Diet vote that will select the new prime minister on Nov. 1.

Shinji Tarutoko, deputy head of Kibo no To, said Watanabe was chosen because he has the longest career as a Lower House representative among Kibo no To members.

Tarutoko said the party will hold an election to choose a party co-president at the end of November or earlier.

Atsushi Oshima, former secretary-general of the DP, will serve as Kibo no To’s secretary-general and policy chief as well until the upcoming co-presidential election, Tarutoko said.

Koike will still lead Kibo no To as president. But on Wednesday she promised to let Diet members choose their own co-president in an apparent effort to ease growing frustration among rank-and-file members over Koike’s leadership.

Many Kibo no To members joined the party hoping Koike’s popularity among voters would help them win a seat in the Oct. 22 poll.

Soon after Maehara struck the merger deal with Koike, the governor made a point of refusing to accept DP members deemed too left-leaning for her new conservative party — a heavy-handed attitude that cost her dearly at the election.

Those excluded instead aligned themselves with the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, another upstart party founded by ex-DP lawmaker Yukio Edano. The remainder entered the race as independents, including heavyweights such as former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada.

Maehara’s departure now formally opens the question of whether the three spin-offs of the DP — Kibo no To, the CDP and independents — can rise above their differences and form a parliamentary alliance against Abe’s ruling coalition.

Earlier this week, the independents founded a parliamentary faction under Okada’s leadership, presenting the third-largest opposition force in the Diet after the CDP and Kibo no To.

On Friday, Okada, for one, stressed the need for interparty solidarity in a gathering of his fellow independents.

“Our goal is to cooperate with the CDP and Kibo no To so we can end LDP-led politics as we gear up for the (2019) Upper House election,” Okada told the meeting. “We need to create a joint group in the Diet,” he said.

But accomplishing Okada’s goal may be easier said than done.

Earlier this week, Edano voiced reluctance to coordinate with any existing party, saying the CDP will not commit itself to power struggles and a “numbers game” in the Diet.

Meanwhile, Masaru Wakasa, an aide close to Koike, said Thursday that he will retire as a politician as he failed to win a Lower House seat in the Tokyo No. 10 single-seat constituency.

“I will at least continue … to support Kibo no To. But as for myself, I will once withdraw from politics,” Wakasa said during a BS Fuji television program on Thursday.

“I’m turning 61. No matter how healthy you are, if you’re over 65 … women and young people should be” prioritized in the political arena, he said.

Staff writers Reiji Yoshida and Daisuke Kikuchi contributed to this report.