The new leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan, headed by Mr. Yukio Hatoyama, faces a bumpy road ahead as it begins steering a party wracked by internal rifts. The sharp discord that surfaced over the selection of the party’s secretary general following the Sept. 23 presidential election is symbolic of the difficulties that lie ahead for the DPJ’s new executive team.

Mr. Hatoyama, who is now serving his third term as president of the nation’s largest opposition party, ought to take the blame for the dissonance, which was caused primarily by his misguided and much-criticized appointments of party executive officials. The party’s public image has been badly tarnished. Failure to repair the damage could eliminate its chances of taking power and drive it to the brink of disintegration.

The immediate priority is to stake out its position for an extraordinary Diet session that opens on Oct. 18 and for parliamentary by-elections that will be held on Oct. 27. If the party suffers major setbacks, Mr. Hatoyama may face pressure to take political responsibility by resigning. Already some of his critics in the party reportedly consider him a virtual “lame duck.” A process of reconciliation must begin if he is to improve his chances of staying in power.

If Mr. Hatoyama’s election to a third-term represented a boring choice to maintain the status quo, his selection of Mr. Kansei Nakano — a veteran player of party politics — as secretary general was a bad choice. The appointment was widely seen, both inside and outside the party, as a reward for Mr. Nakano’s contribution to Mr. Hatoyama’s re-election. The party’s claim to be a driving force for change and progress now rings hollow.

The new executive lineup, the result of a factional balancing act, shows that factionalism is an old habit that dies hard. In this respect, the DPJ seems little different from the Liberal Democratic Party, the prime example of factional politics. There is a wide gap between rhetoric and reality: While Mr. Hatoyama keeps crying for reform, the party itself is stuck in old-style politics.

The Nakano appointment angered many members of the party, particularly younger ones. Apparently afraid to cause a party split, however, they restrained themselves, creating a semblance of unity. But behind the facade lie cinders of discord that may flare up once the younger members act in unison. It is possible that they might form a new group that cuts across factional lines.

In fact, some of the party’s young Turks are already aiming for a change in leadership with an eye on the next party convention in January. They might even throw down the gauntlet before that if the party performs poorly in the extraordinary Diet session or in the parliamentary by-elections. With regular Diet elections looming over the horizon — contests that will test the party’s ability to take the reins of government — younger members who don’t have as much organized voter support as old-timers fear, understandably so, that the party’s tarnished image could turn away unaffiliated or uncommitted voters.

The DPJ need not, and should not, repeat the mistake of the defunct Shinshinto, which, as the largest opposition party in 1997, was forced to dissolve itself because of irreparable internal divisions. It was a huge political blunder that destroyed, it seemed, a golden chance to topple the LDP from power. The DPJ, it should be noted, includes former Shinshinto members.

Since its inception in 1996, the DPJ has made gains in national elections under the joint leadership of Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Naoto Kan, who formerly served as DPJ secretary general. But political winds began to shift away from the DPJ and to the LDP after a reformist administration headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came into office in April last year.

To close ranks against the LDP, the No. 1 opposition party must first develop a more attractive and more coherent platform and build its organization along these lines. With unified local elections scheduled for next April, it must also expand its grassroots network so it can increase its representation in local assemblies and administrations.

Experience shows that, in the long run, artificial unity built on an old-fashioned style of party management and a precarious balance of factional forces can do more harm than good. Plainly, what the party needs most now and in the future is genuine unity. Mr. Hatoyama, a good orator, may want to show strength in a face-to-face debate with the prime minister, but what he really needs to do is expand the DPJ’s popular support. The best way to do so is to hit the hustings throughout the country.

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