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In a statement issued last week, the Democratic Party of Japan acknowledged that a fellow lawmaker used a fake e-mail to cook up a scandal implicating a senior official of the governing Liberal Democratic Party with the disgraced former president of Internet startup Livedoor Co.

Citing a copy of the in-house e-mail purportedly sent by Livedoor founder Takafumi Horie to a subordinate, lawmaker Hisayasu Nagata had charged Feb. 16 before the Lower House Budget Committee that Horie ordered the transfer of 30 million yen to the bank account of a son of LDP secretary general Tsutomu Takebe.

On Feb. 28, DPJ chief Seiji Maehara apologized for letting Nagata make the false allegations, as the “bombshell” disclosure ended up gravely hurting Nagata and his own party. Among DPJ lawmakers, criticism is growing against Maehara and other party executives.

The DPJ suspended Nagata’s membership for six months, but the punishment is not strong enough. Nagata should resign as a Diet member for aggravating the public’s distrust of politics.

Although Yoshihiko Noda resigned as the DPJ Diet Steering Committee chairman to take responsibility for Diet confusion caused by the scandal, Maehara, secretary general Yukio Hatoyama and other party leaders will remain in their posts.

The question now is how the DPJ will account for its actions in the affair, which exposed its immaturity as a political party. As things stand now, the party is likely to lose public support. The DPJ, which aspires to replace the LDP as the ruling party in the next general election, has seriously erred in its political strategies.

The whole affair exposes serious problems in DPJ management:

* The DPJ leadership allowed Nagata to practically go it alone when he made the allegations. To expose wrongdoing by the governing party, an opposition party must obtain correct information backed with solid evidence.

* Only Maehara and Noda knew in advance that Nagata was going to drop the bombshell. Many lawmakers have grown critical of Maehara’s political style in making unilateral decisions, a problem that led to Nagata’s making the false claims in the first place.

* DPJ executives lacked crisis-management skills. On Feb. 22, a week after Nagata made his accusation in the Diet, Maehara claimed in a one-on-one Diet debate with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that he had solid evidence proving that Horie offered illegal funds to the LDP. This followed a flat denial by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office that it had any factual information regarding the e-mail. It was highly unusual for the office, which is investigating charges against Horie and other Livedoor executives with regard to the Securities and Exchange Law, to issue such a comment.

The day after Maehara made his remarks Nagata reportedly expressed his intention to resign as a Diet member. The DPJ had been driven into a corner. Party executives had Nagata hospitalized for “rest,” perhaps because they feared his resignation would force them to take responsibility for the affair.

The scandal came amid the DPJ leadership’s recent moves to step up confrontation with the government and the ruling coalition parties in the current Diet.

The DPJ suffered a devastating defeat to the LDP in September’s general election after Koizumi ridiculed its failure to come up with a viable counterproposal to his postal privatization program. Maehara, elected as party chief after the election, then announced a strategy of presenting counterproposals on important legislative issues.

The strategy stirred intraparty criticism that it would undermine the party’s independence. So the party switched its strategy to one of confronting the LDP over the “four-piece set” — the Livedoor scandal, the fabrication of earthquake-resistance data for building designs, the dispute over whether Japanese officials were prepared to resume U.S. beef imports, and the bid-rigging cases involving the Defense Facilities Administration Agency. The DPJ focused on the Livedoor affair since LDP secretary general Takebe had actively supported Horie’s candidacy in the general election (although the LDP did not endorse it officially).

Maehara’s preference for top-down party management — rather than one based on consensus — has stirred criticism that his political style is similar to Koizumi’s. The DPJ, which happens to include former members of the LDP and the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party (JSP), is split over diplomacy and security issues. Maehara reportedly intends to compile the party’s basic policy outline by the end of June, but sharp differences of opinion in the party are likely to make that difficult.

Maehara argues that the Constitution should be revised to make it possible for Japan to exercise, in a limited way, the right of collective self-defense, despite the ban on such exercise according to the government’s interpretation. However, former JSP members, including Lower House Vice Speaker Takahiro Yokomichi, are dead set against Maehara’s views as well as his strategy of ending the party’s dependence on labor union support.

Ahead of the DPJ presidential election in September, Maehara’s rivals, including former deputy chief Ichiro Ozawa and former chief Naoto Kan, are likely to step up efforts to replace him. Kan lost to Maehara in the 2005 presidential election by only two votes. It is doubtful whether Maehara and other party executives can maintain their leadership, weakened by the e-mail affair.

In September, the LDP will also hold a presidential election to replace Koizumi, whose term as party chief expires. Japanese politics will then face a turning point, depending on the results of the LDP and DPJ presidential elections.

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