The priority for the Democratic Party of Japan, which this week kicked off the race to choose its new leader, is to rebuild itself into a force that can, either on its own or through mergers or alliances with other parties, once again present voters with an alternative to the ruling bloc — a role that it failed to play as the largest opposition party in the Lower House election last month.

Regardless of who becomes the new DPJ president in the Jan. 18 vote, the race should serve as an occasion for the party and its members to think about what was wrong with the party when it led the government from 2009 to 2012 and what it needs to do to regain voters’ confidence.

The results of the December election did not mark a turnaround in the DPJ’s downtrend since its crushing defeat in the 2012 Lower House election. While the DPJ managed marginal gains from its pre-election strength, president Banri Kaieda’s loss of his Diet seat, which paved the way for the leadership race, symbolized the party’s woes. The splintered opposition camp was obviously not viewed by voters as a viable alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition, which was returned to a two-thirds majority in the Lower House.

Three candidates have entered the race — the party’s acting chief Katsuya Okada, former secretary general Goshi Hosono and former health and welfare minister Akira Nagatsuma. Okada, who is reportedly backed by party members who held senior positions while it led the government, says the party race is “the last chance” for the DPJ’s revival. Hosono, who receives support from the party’s more conservative ranks ready for its realignment with other opposition forces, vows to create a “new” DPJ that represents a break from the past. Nagatsuma, meanwhile, is said to have the backing of the party’s more left-leaning members with close ties to labor unions.

Media surveys indicate that none of the candidates currently has a dominant lead over the others. Participating in the vote will be the party’s Diet members, local assembly members, rank-and-file party members and supporters.

Votes given to the roughly 226,000 rank-and-file members and supporters have more than double the electoral weight accorded to Diet members in choosing the new leader, making the outcome of the race less predictable.

Since its inception in the late 1990s, the DPJ has been dogged by policy differences and factional splits among its members, who hail from a wide spectrum of political backgrounds. Its three years at the helm of government were marred by constant internal strife that eventually stripped the party of a Lower House majority even before it fell from power.

The same policy and factional divisions appear to be present among the candidates vying for the new party leadership. The differences include the party’s relationship with its organized supporter, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), and how it would go about unifying the tattered opposition camp — although all three candidates have indicated they are cautious toward merging with the No. 2 opposition Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party).

The DPJ lawmakers and other members should realize that they must overcome such differences and divisions if the party is to put up a meaningful presence in the political landscape dominated by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance. The leadership race should serve as a crucial test for the DPJ’s future after the party spent the past two years failing to make a turnaround, leaving the opposition camp powerless against the ruling bloc.

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