The Democratic Party of Japan looks set for a three-way race to select its new head next month. The current leader, Mr. Naoto Kan, and the deputy secretary general, Mr. Yukio Hatoyama, have already announced they will run in the Sept. 25 party election. The third man, Mr. Takahiro Yokomichi, chairman of the executive council, is expected to declare his candidacy today.

Because the contest will be a close one, it could spur a vigorous policy debate in the largest opposition party, which has shown signs of disunity of late. With the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party moving toward a ruling coalition with New Komeito, the second-largest opposition party, the central issue in the race is how the DPJ will be able to counter the three-party alliance.

Mr. Kan has come under fire from some of his party rank and file for lackluster handling of party and parliamentary affairs. That is believed to have motivated Mr. Hatoyama, a longtime ally of Mr. Kan’s, to run against him. With the party’s founding leader now challenged by two heavyweight contenders, the coming contest also could widen divisions in the party.

The DPJ, created in 1996 as the “new hope” of Japanese politics, should not let that happen. The contest should be used as an occasion to rebuild the divided house, lay the groundwork for the next general election and show in plain language what Japan will be like in the 21st century if the DPJ takes the reins of government. Only by so doing, can the party stem its decline and restore public confidence.

The DPJ made a fresh start in April last year by bringing together a number of smaller opposition groups. Its strategy was to win big in the next Lower House election so that it could snatch power from the LDP. In the Upper House election of July 1998, the DPJ scored a major victory, forcing a leadership change in the LDP. During the extraordinary Diet session that followed, Mr. Kan’s party took a high profile and got the government and the LDP to swallow sweeping changes to their bank-bailout package.

But the political equation began to swing in favor of the LDP after the ruling party formed a coalition with the Liberal Party last January. During the marathon regular Diet session from late January through mid-August, the two parties joined hands with New Komeito, thus undercutting the DPJ’s position as the No. 1 opposition party.

The lack of unity in the DPJ, a motley group that includes former Japan Socialist Party members as well as LDP defectors, also contributed to its decline. Its public image was further tarnished as it proved unable to present a credible plan for taking over from the LDP as the governing party.

Opinion polls showed the DPJ slipping further behind in public opinion polls. Mr. Kan’s leadership also waned as he was increasingly found wanting in his stewardship, not only of his own party, but in dealing with Diet business. Now there seems to be a growing feeling within the party that, under him, it will not be able to win the next general election.

At a press conference announcing his candidacy, Mr. Kan described the party election as a “preliminary contest” to the Diet election of the prime minister. “I want to ask the people and party members,” he declared, “whether I am a good candidate for prime minister.”

Mr. Hatoyama said at his own press conference that he would be the standard bearer of the “new liberal force” to roll back the rising tide of conservatism. He stressed the need for the party to become less dependent on Mr. Kan and build a new leadership structure to bolster party unity. As things stand, the call for unity sounds a bit hollow. The two men have worked hand in hand ever since the founding of the DPJ. Now they are pitted against each other. With Mr. Yokomichi about to join the fray, the impression left is of a party in turmoil.

All three contenders need to realize that the DPJ’s responsibility as the largest opposition party will increase even more if, as expected, a three-way ruling coalition of the LDP, the LP and New Komeito comes into being. Their common objective must be to develop an effective joint-opposition strategy to prevent the three parties from dominating national policies.

For that, they should conduct a constructive policy debate and propose clear-cut policies and principles for reining in the looming conservative triumvirate. If the contest ends up as a mere leadership struggle, it will only increase turmoil in the party. The result will be a further erosion of public confidence in the DPJ. The election, coming at such an important time in Japanese politics, must provide the chance of reviving the DPJ as an effective counterbalance.

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