The resignation of Mr. Yukio Hatoyama as president of the Democratic Party of Japan, just two months after his re-election, is probably the most poignant reminder yet that the nation’s largest opposition party is deeply divided. On Tuesday, taking the blame for his abortive plan to forge an opposition alliance, Mr. Hatoyama announced he will formally step down on Dec. 13, the last day of the current Diet session.
The Hatoyama fiasco is having a profound impact on the DPJ, which now faces the most critical moment in its history. His resignation was inevitable, given his plummeting leadership, but there is no assurance that the divided party will stand on its feet anytime soon. Mr. Hatoyama’s ill-fated plan, which he abruptly floated without first consulting the party, has been criticized by many as “reckless,” but blaming him alone cannot solve the party’s problems. The disarray in the DPJ will continue unless it puts its house in order.
The DPJ crisis is also likely to have an effect on other opposition parties, for the public’s disappointment with the DPJ will lead to an erosion of confidence in the opposition camp as a whole. A weakening of opposition ranks, already evident in the Diet and elsewhere, will further embolden the ruling parties. As a result, politics may lose some of its vital flexibility to the detriment of sound parliamentary democracy in Japan.
That is why the DPJ should consider the Hatoyama resignation in the broader context of a political reorganization. The election of a new leadership must be the first step in this process. Discussion of more detailed and more credible plans for promoting opposition unity is needed. For a start, the party should account for its stunning setbacks in October’s parliamentary by-elections. A candid analysis of its mistakes is essential to its revival.
Being the second-largest party after the Liberal Democratic Party, the DPJ remains a contender for power. It is even possible, depending on how the political situation develops in coming months, that the DPJ could beat the LDP in the next general election. Mr. Hatoyama may have had this possibility in mind when he proposed to merge with the Liberal Party or form a greater parliamentary alliance. If he did, however, he kept it to himself.
The challenge for the DPJ, no matter who succeeds Mr. Hatoyama, is to draw up a realistic scenario for replacing the LDP and to discuss it openly. In other words, it should pick up where Mr. Hatoyama has left off. His own scenario, if he had one, should be disclosed and discussed. If this is done, his departure may well serve as the catalyst for a revival of the DPJ as a strong opposition leader.
Mr. Hatoyama is a man of principle and action. He also enjoys a clean image. Nine years ago he left the LDP and created Sakigake, a reformist party. Later, though, he left this party, too, and, together with Mr. Naoto Kan, the popular former DPJ secretary general, formed a new group that eventually would evolve into the present DPJ. In the process, however, he displayed a certain impulsiveness and a lack of prudence, those around him say, that may have contributed to the failed plan for a united opposition.
The effectiveness of a political organization depends crucially on its leadership. The DPJ, now four years old, needs someone who can bring it real unity. The outcome of the coming leadership election is therefore of critical importance to the party. Mr. Hatoyama’s resignation will have been in vain if the new leadership fails to rebuild the party as a viable alternative to LDP-led politics.
The DPJ’s weakness stems largely from its origin as a collection of splinter groups. This makes it prone to internal strife not only among members of the old DPJ but also between conservatives and centrists. How to bring them solidly into line must be a top priority for the new leadership. One lesson the party needs to bear in mind is that the popularity of its leader does not necessarily make it strong.
Mr. Hatoyama, to be sure, did a great deal to boost his party’s fortune in its earlier years. No doubt his image as a dedicated reformer has been a major asset to the party. In retrospect, however, the DPJ seems to have depended too much on his personal appeal and neglected to solve its own problems. The personality factor is important, certainly, but it will prove a liability if it is used as a cover for negligence or inaction.
With Mr. Hatoyama now looking like a fallen idol, the DPJ needs to rebuild its public image not only as the leading opposition party but also as a credible candidate to serve as a ruling party. The party must begin this process with an honest assessment of its current crisis.
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