The Democratic Party of Japan has made a fresh start under new chief Ichiro Ozawa, known for his “iron fist” leadership. His first priority is to revitalize the top opposition party, which has lost public trust following the fiasco over a fake e-mail.

To breathe life into the party, Ozawa vows to push “party unity.” Toward that end, he appointed Naoto Kan, his foe in the head-to-head party presidential election, as his deputy, and retained all the party executives, including secretary general Yukio Hatoyama.

Ozawa, often criticized for his autocratic political style, has depended on a handful of close aides to make important decisions behind closed doors. He is also known as the “destroyer” for creating and breaking up political parties.

His assumption of the DPJ leadership is stirring concerns among lawmakers of the governing Liberal Democratic Party that he might make another attempt at political realignment by mustering conservative forces.

Ozawa is faced with dramatic changes in the domestic and international situations and conflicts inherent in the DPJ.

Politics in the second half of the 20th century was dominated by the “1955 system” of confrontation between the LDP and the defunct opposition Japan Socialist Party. They were divided by sharp ideological differences between democracy and socialism against the background of the Cold War. There was no room for compromise between the conservative and leftist forces over security and diplomatic policies.

The JSP had remained a perennial opposition party, failing to win majority support from the public. Meanwhile, the LDP had maintained a single-party rule of 38 years, which was unprecedented outside the communist world.

Under LDP rule, Japan became the world’ second-largest economic power, making the people affluent. But the nation, under tight bureaucratic rule, was bound by tight regulatory restrictions.

For a long time, Japanese industries, including agriculture, were protected by government policies. As a result, high costs contributed to the nation’ economic slowdown of the 1990s. In almost all sectors of the economy, government intervention through subsidies was the norm. The idea of “large government” was taken for granted by both the conservative and the reformist forces.

The LDP’s single-party rule ended in 1993, when Ozawa, then a senior member of the LDP faction led by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, and his followers bolted the party. Ozawa ended LDP rule and broke up the 1955 system.

Since then, Japan has been ruled by coalition governments. With the shadow of the Cold War gone, the world in the 21st century entered an age of uncertainties, facing new threats following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Even in the U.S.-dominated “unipolar” world, the United States alone is unable to guarantee global stability. As part of efforts to overhaul relations with its allies, the Bush administration is pushing the realignment of U.S. forces overseas, including bases in Japan.

In Asia, there are growing security concerns, especially over China’s military expansion and North Korea’s nuclear-arms and missile development.

The administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, inaugurated in 2001, has been pushing structural reform under the slogan of “small government.” The reform programs include the privatization of highway corporations and postal services, as well as the consolidation of government-backed financial institutions.

There have been disputes as to whether the widely reported widening economic gap in the Japanese society stems from Koizumi’s reform agenda. Debate should be promoted on whether regulatory reform and liberalization should be the only means of economic revitalization.

The number of households on welfare has exceeded 1 million, indicating the necessity for a social “safety net.” The opposition forces have an important role of demanding further government efforts to save the underprivileged who have fallen through the net.

Criticizing Koizumi’s reform agenda, Ozawa says it lacks a vision for a new Japan and has created a wide economic divide in a “survival of the fittest” society.

However, should it advocate a “large government,” the DPJ would go against the current of the times and would have to give up the urgent task of balancing the budget.

Ozawa vows to clarify differences with the LDP in policymaking and Diet debate, in a departure from his predecessor Seiji Maehara, who favored a strategy of making counterproposals to LDP-sponsored legislative agenda.

To confront the LDP, Ozawa has come up with eight-point policy proposals, including:

* The use of consumption-tax revenues to cover the basic part of public pensions, nursing-care insurance and medical care for the elderly.

* Liberalization of agriculture.

* United Nations-based security policy.

The DPJ’s most serious problem is that it has failed to coordinate differences over constitutional amendments, security and other basic issues. As a result of political realignment in the past, the DPJ party includes lawmakers of widely varying political affiliations, such as former members of the LDP and the JSP. There are doubts as to whether the party will be able to forge consensus on important policies.

Maehara tried to build intraparty consensus over constitutional amendments and the collective right of self-defense. Now Ozawa faces the same challenge.

To confront the LDP over policy differences, the DPJ must urgently establish clear-cut basic policies.

Ozawa admits the DPJ’s weakness lies in its failure to obtain support from the majority of the public that wants change. To gain more support, Ozawa needs to issue even stronger messages to the public than Koizumi.

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