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The Democratic Party leadership race is effectively on as deputy leader Renho has announced her candidacy to take over from outgoing chief Katsuya Okada in the September vote by the party’s members and supporters. Media surveys show that Renho, a popular lawmaker who was re-elected to her Upper House seat with the largest number of votes won by any candidate in the Tokyo constituency at 1.12 million, is far ahead of her colleagues as the person deemed most suited to lead the top opposition party. Rival forces in the party meanwhile are struggling to field a viable contender, and there are reports that members close to the current leadership — who are believed to support Renho — may be maneuvering to make her the uncontested choice.

The next DP leader needs to set a new path for a party that has struggled to regain the support of voters since its predecessor’s crushing fall from power in 2012. The party’s performance in the Upper House election last month — though better than in the previous race three years ago — cast doubt on whether it is on course to again become an opposition leader that can serve as an alternative to the governing coalition. The choice of its new chief should be based on an honest assessment of the party’s track record since 2012 and a vision on how it plans to rebuild itself going forward. A lack of competition in the selection of the new leadership will certainly not contribute to such efforts.

Since the Democratic Party of Japan fell from its 2009-2012 stint in power, the party has been no match for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition in both Diet business and in key elections. The July 10 Upper House race was the first nationwide election since the party was renamed the Democratic Party in a merger with the smaller opposition Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) in March.

The result was a mixed picture. In the triennial race in which half of the Upper House seats were up for grabs, the DP won 32 seats — down from the 43 it had going into the race but up from the 17 it won in the 2013 election — the worst on record since the DPJ’s founding. Its campaign cooperation with three other opposition parties in 32 crucial electoral districts in which one seat each was contested — which was realized when the Japanese Communist Party withdrew its candidates in most of such constituencies to pave the way for joint opposition candidates — led to victories in 11 constituencies and losses to the LDP-Komeito alliance in the 21 others, compared with the LDP-Komeito bloc’s sweep of 29 of the 31 such constituencies three years ago.

In summing up the Upper House race, the DP leadership called the outcome a “defeat” but said the party “was able to “secure the step for the next” move. Still, Okada announced — on the eve of the July 31 Tokyo gubernatorial election, in which the candidate jointly backed by the DP and the other opposition forces in the same formula as in the Upper House race ended a distant third — that he was not seeking re-election as party chief in the September race, saying he would like somebody new to take over.

That person will inherit the unfinished task of rebuilding the party. The party, it seems, has yet to find the answer for the question of how of this should be done. Despite the improvement in its electoral performance, it remains far from clear whether the DP has regained the trust of voters that it lost due to the DPJ-led government’s failures. A Kyodo News survey in early August put its popular support at a meager 10.9 percent — barely a quarter of the 39.1 percent for the LDP. The campaign cooperation with other opposition forces, particularly the JCP, no doubt contributed to reducing the LDP-Komeito bloc’s sweep of seats in the key electoral districts, but as it lacked a common policy platform the campaign cooperation has its limitations and will come under greater scrutiny if the parties try it again in the next Lower House election. Unlike in an Upper House race, the parties would be pressed to come up with a policy vision for a governing coalition.

Renho, with the support of key members of the current party leadership, is seen as a front-runner for the Sept. 15 vote long before the race officially opens early next month. She says she would maintain “the basic framework” of the joint opposition campaign but will look into the way it’s run, and emphasizes that the DP “will not seek to build a government together with parties that have different platforms and policies.” How the DP should engage in campaign cooperation with other opposition parties in future elections should be thoroughly discussed in the leadership race.

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