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Mr Yukio Hatoyama, re-elected Monday to his third term as head of the Democratic Party of Japan, faces a daunting challenge: leading the country’s largest opposition party to victory in the next legislative election for the influential Lower House. Mr. Hatoyama retained the post in a close runoff with Mr. Naoto Kan, who resigned as secretary general on Tuesday.

The crunch time will come by June 2004 at the latest when a general election must be held. The big question is whether the DPJ will be able to assemble a parliamentary majority or gain more seats than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP, together with its two junior coalition partners, now commands a majority in both chambers of the Diet.

The immediate question is how Mr. Hatoyama and his party will confront Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration. Koizumi and his team are having a hard time reviving the sluggish economy and keeping structural reforms alive. Diplomatically, Mr. Koizumi’s historic visit to North Korea has created knotty problems with regard to the kidnappings of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.

Will the DPJ be able to close ranks and put up a vigorous fight? The answer seems uncertain for now. With the same man at the helm, it is hard to tell how the party will change in the next two years. In the election all four candidates, including Mr. Hatoyama, emphasized that a change of power was the best way to achieve “political reform.” Yet the party itself has hardly changed.

True, a DPJ leadership election is no match for an LDP presidential election, which is effectively a contest for the prime minister’s office. That is part of the reason why Monday’s race failed to spark the public’s interest. But it is also true that the DPJ painted, if unwittingly, a lackluster image of itself, partly because it lacked a clear-cut strategy for taking power and partly because of its lingering internal divisions.

To be sure, the party tried to forge closer ties with voters from various walks of life by allowing about 300,000 “supporters” to take part in the election. However, the turnout was only slightly above 50 percent, indicating a relative lack of grassroots support. This also seems to reflect the low-key nature of the election itself, as well as the fact that legislators had precedence over supporters in terms of vote value.

Mr. Hatoyama’s re-election may be a sign that, for the time being at least, the DPJ will offer more of the same. The pre-election dream of a “generational change” has not come true, though Mr. Yoshihiko Noda, leader of the younger members, won a fairly large number of votes. The election would have been at least more interesting if all younger candidates had taken part individually instead of uniting behind Mr. Noda.

The Hatoyama-Kan runoff is nothing new. They have fought each other before, with Mr. Hatoyama winning. This indicates that the power balance in the party has remained basically unchanged since it was formed in 1998. The rise of younger members suggests that the balance is beginning to change, but it is too early to tell whether this will lead to an increase in party strength.

The immediate task for Mr. Hatoyama is to cement the unity of the party by eliminating any covert moves to split it — moves that were mooted in the shadows during the latest election. His re-election has diminished, if not removed, the possibility of outright dissension or outside intervention. It is likely, however, that political maneuvers surrounding the DPJ will escalate as a Lower House election approaches. In the background is the prospect of a realignment of the political world.

Mr. Hatoyama also faces an urgent need to establish a coherent game plan to snatch power from the LDP. As yet the party has no such strategy. During the campaign Mr. Hatoyama reiterated his desire to create a new force with the participation of LDP dissidents, but Mr. Kan and two other contenders stressed the need to create a DPJ administration.

With Mr. Kan opting out as secretary general, building a new leadership system is another urgent priority. It is only a matter of time before a generational change takes place, but the party cannot afford to wait until younger leaders take over. The runoff can be taken to mean that the party wanted to maintain the “Hato-Kan” leadership. This kind of setup, with two men cooperating hand in glove, appears to have worked fine so far, but whether it should be continued is another matter.

The DPJ is often described as a hodgepodge of splinter groups. Mr. Hatoyama himself has his roots in the LDP. His biggest challenge is to achieve harmony across a broad spectrum of the party. That is an essential prerequisite to winning the electoral confrontation with the LDP that will come in less than two years.

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