It is hard not to feel a sense of deja vu about the comeback of Mr. Naoto Kan as president of the Democratic Party of Japan, a post he held in 1998-99. In Tuesday’s leadership contest, Mr. Kan defeated Mr. Katsuya Okada, the deputy secretary general, by a wide margin, contrary to forecasts. His victory suggests that many DPJ legislators are counting on the popular former health and welfare minister to revive the party’s sagging fortunes in the next general election, which may be held next year.
Mr. Okada, an unknown quantity in national politics, has the appeal of a potential leader. Being younger than Mr. Kan, Mr. Okada also meets popular expectations of a generational change in the DPJ leadership. It seems, though, that the risk-averse psychology of election-conscious party members has prevailed against the venturesome mood of Okada supporters, many of them younger legislators who prefer bolder change.
In fact, the vote for Mr. Kan makes sense in view of his wide name recognition as well as his proven leadership qualities. In September’s presidential vote, for instance, Mr. Kan came close to beating former party chief Mr. Yukio Hatoyama. But Mr. Kan is not above criticism. As a former president and secretary general, he is blamed partly for Hatoyama’s inept handling of party affairs. Moreover, Mr. Kan’s return to the helm could delay a leadership transition to younger men like Mr. Okada.
The main challenge for Mr. Kan is to unite the divided party, which he says is “on the brink of crisis.” That won’t be easy. True, the latest contest, unlike the previous one, has caused no open discord. But there remains simmering antagonism among various factions — a deep-seated feeling that stems from the party’s origin as a scratch team. The DPJ’s future, therefore, depends crucially on whether Mr. Kan will be able to bring the feuding factions together.
Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Kan have been pulling the party, like the two wheels of a cart, since it formed four years ago. Their stewardship, however, has received a mixture of praise and censure. That ambivalence was supposed to have been put to rest with Mr. Hatoyama’s resignation earlier this month. The general expectation was that he would be succeeded by a “third man.” Mr. Kan’s re-emergence, therefore, seems like a throwback to the past.
Mr. Kan himself must be well aware that he lacks a fresh image. The test for him is to transcend his record, impressive as it is, and develop a new leadership style. The question is whether he can bridge the gap in perception that exists between the party and the general public. That in itself, though, will not be enough to turn the DPJ around.
No doubt leadership is an important factor. But the current tendency to put too much of a premium on “leadership material” risks deflecting attention from something equally important: the quality of organization. It is not only the leadership factor that can make or break a political party, but also the ability of the party to interact with its leader. For the DPJ in particular, teamwork is essential.
The present DPJ was cobbled together in 1998 against a backdrop of a shifting political landscape. In a sense, diversity is the party’s strength, but it is also a weakness when unity is lacking. Factional discord will come out into the open from time to time unless and until the party reinvents itself as a strong, united organization.
The DPJ garnered as many as 16 million district votes in the 2000 Lower House election and 10 million in the 2001 Upper House election. But the party has only 36,000 card-carrying members. That number is simply too small for the largest opposition party, which aims to seize power in the next general election. It is, therefore, essential that the party expand its local network and build a broad basis of public support. That way its policy proposals will have more impact on the government and the ruling parties.
To become a more open party, the DPJ also needs to promote cooperation with citizens groups. Perhaps it is also necessary to develop ties with labor unions and industry groups. Its desire to stay clear of vested interests is understandable, but such an exclusionary policy, if pushed too far, may hamper its efforts to create a wider circle of support and sympathy.
Now is the time for the DPJ to put an end to the period of “personal politics” dependent on the popularity of its leader. To realize its cherished dream of taking power — be it through a grand alliance of opposition parties or the formation of a new party — the party must first build up its organization. As long as it remains weak and divided, that dream will remain as distant as ever.
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