The Democratic Party of Japan, the nation’s top opposition party, has held its first convention since electing Mr. Seiji Maehara as president in September. The party’s new action policy for 2006 aims to reverse the power balance between the ruling and opposition camps in the next Upper House election scheduled for 2007.

For now, however, the biggest challenge for the DPJ is to heal its seemingly widening internal divisions. At the convention, held last weekend in Tokyo, Mr. Maehara came under fire for aggressive policy statements that he had made recently here and abroad — statements that his critics and opponents say deviated significantly from the party’s platform.

Mr. Maehara wants to build the party into a “fighting organization” capable of taking power. That goal, however, seems to have been relegated to the background as wide schisms in the party and deep mistrust of the new leader came to a head.

Mr. Maehara is a right-of-center politician. In a speech in Washington during an official visit this month, he said “Japan should also assume the responsibility of defending the sea lanes” rather than rely solely on the United States. He also said “China’s military buildup is a realistic threat” and that “it is important to respond resolutely” to that threat.

As expected, the statements came under sharp criticism at the party convention for departing from the party’s basic policies and for ignoring its related discussions. But Mr. Maehara rejected the demand that he retract the controversial comments. Instead, he urged the party to conduct an all-out debate on these issues.

Immediately after assuming the party’s presidency, Mr. Maehara emphasized that the Democrats must present policy initiatives to counter the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policies and programs. But his call for action was seen by dissenting Democrats as leaning too much toward the LDP.

Perhaps that’s why he could not meet with China’s top leaders during his recent visit to Beijing and why his plan to visit South Korea is up in the air. To be sure, he opposes official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, but his stance toward both countries seems to differ little from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s. The public expects the DPJ to offer better alternatives to government policies in dealing with foreign countries. If the party looks like it is seeking a foreign policy similar to the government’s, its raison d’etre as the main opposition group will be called into question. The same thing can be said for domestic policy.

Mr. Maehara is strong on policy matters. But judging from the strong criticism he received at the convention, many members appear skeptical or confused about his policies and his leadership style. The DPJ needs a strong leader in order to unite, but a “top-down” structure could be a double-edged sword for a deeply divided party.

Prime Minister Koizumi is known as a top-down leader who tries to decide largely by himself what his party should do. Many Democrats seem to regard Mr. Maehara in the same vein. If Mr. Maehara is trying to follow Koizumi’s example, he probably should change course — at least for now. Mr. Koizumi was elected LDP president on the strength of overwhelming public support; Mr. Maehara was not.

The LDP, on the other hand, appears to be looking to Mr. Maehara’s party as a possible partner. Mr. Koizumi himself seems to have a certain affinity toward the Democratic leader. Recently he floated a vague plan to form a “grand coalition” with the DPJ, causing much suspicion and speculation within the top opposition party.

Mr. Maehara needs to eliminate these growing feelings of doubt and mistrust. Failing that, his party risks becoming more divided, and the debate on its policy direction could end up as an exercise in futility. If Mr. Maehara is serious about building a strong opposition party, he must emphasize dissimilarities, not similarities, with the LDP.

The DPJ, established in 1998, is a relatively young party. It started out as a sort of scratch team that included politicians from across a broad spectrum. This diversity of membership remains a chief cause for internal discord, but so far the party has managed to avoid the worst — an open split. Still, old ideological differences could resurface in the months ahead as the policy debate develops.

Mr. Maehara says his party should mount a “counteroffensive” against the LDP and “snatch power” from it. For that, he must have his party’s solid backing. He will become a solitary leader if he fails to inspire confidence in his stewardship of the party. With the DPJ set to hold a presidential election next September, one can reasonably ask whom the second largest party will select as its leader at that time.

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