Mr. Seiji Maehara’s decision to step down as chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, and to take responsibility for a recent e-mail fiasco in the Diet, came suddenly but too late. He leaves the spotlighted position without living up to party members’ hopes that he would energize their goals. His resignation Friday may further damage the party following its devastating defeat in the Sept. 11 general elections.

Infighting over the choice of a new leader could worsen the party’s plight even more. The party is to choose a new leader April 7. It must do so in a smooth manner while presenting convincing policy measures that capture people’s imagination and strengthen their confidence in the future.

Mr. Maehara told party executives that he is largely responsible for the hype surrounding the bogus e-mail, presented in the Diet by DPJ Lower House member Hisayasu Nagata in February, alleging that Livedoor Co. founder Takafumi Horie ordered 30 million yen transferred to the second son of Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe. Along with Mr. Maehara, other members of the current DPJ leadership, including Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama, will also step down.

Mr. Nagata, the center of the storm, has submitted his resignation from the Diet to the Lower House speaker. At one point, Mr. Nagata appeared to have the LDP leadership cornered, since it had supported Mr. Horie as a candidate in the Sept. 11 elections. But the e-mail backfired after it was found to be a fake, throwing the No. 1 opposition party into disarray.

Although the e-mail fiasco ended up as the direct cause of Mr. Maehara’s downfall, his sudden resignation in itself can be regarded as the denouement of his qualities and policy orientation as an opposition leader.

After the DPJ’s crushing defeat in the Lower House election, Mr. Maehara, 43, was chosen party leader to succeed Mr. Katsuya Okada, beating former party leader Naoto Kan by just two votes. Those who elected him had hoped that he would revive the party. Mr. Maehara himself said he aimed to build a “fighting party” that could take power.

His record as party leader was far from satisfactory. Under his leadership, the DPJ not only failed to achieve unity but also increased people’s distrust of the party and politics in general. Mr. Maehara’s “top-down” leadership style and appointment of younger members in important party posts contributed to widening internal divisions.

Believing that the DPJ’s reliance on government and public-sector labor unions during the election campaign worked negatively against the party, Mr. Maehara grew antagonistic toward them. This naturally alienated the unions, which had formed an important part of the party’s support base.

Although he opposed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine — a focus of criticism from neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea — he could not present a credible proposal for repairing Japan’s relations with the two countries. Instead, in a speech in Washington in December, he exacerbated the situation when he said, “China’s military buildup is a real threat.” He came under fire at a party convention for departing from the party’s basic policies, yet he would not retract his statement.

As for the faked e-mail, the DPJ under Mr. Maehara’s leadership apparently did not make any effort as an organization to ensure that the material possessed by Mr. Nagata was genuine. After Mr. Nagata took up the contents of the e-mail in the Diet on Feb. 16, Mr. Maehara said the information had a high degree of reliability. During a debate later with Mr. Koizumi in the Diet, he even said, “We have proof that funds were transferred (to Mr. Takebe’s son).”

His statements, which were not based on evidence, came back to haunt the party when a party probe concluded Feb. 28 that the e-mail was indeed a fake. Mr. Maehara’s failure to take positive steps to clarify the party’s responsibility for the fiasco has greatly hurt the party’s credibility.

Upon Mr. Maehara’s election as DPJ leader, dissenting party members suspected that his policy orientation leaned too much toward the LDP. In early December, it surfaced that Mr. Koizumi had secretly contacted Mr. Maehara in late September to sound him out about forming a “grand coalition” with the DPJ.

Mr. Maehara’s biggest failure as head of the No. 1 opposition party was that he did not, and could not, present the nation a grand policy vision to shape the future of Japan. The DPJ is urged to unite under a new leader and offer better alternatives to policies of the present government.

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