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The Democratic Party’s leadership race, which officially opened Friday for the Sept. 15 vote, should be an occasion for the largest opposition party to publicly demonstrate how it plans to rebuild itself and regain the trust of voters after its failure at the helm of government from 2009 to 2012 and then its poor performance against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition. The candidates in the race must feel a sense of crisis over the party’s current state and show how they plan to turn it around instead of focusing on winning the race on the strength of the party’s internal power balance.

The race to succeed outgoing leader Katsuya Okada has emerged as a three-way contest among party deputy leader Renho, former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and Yuichiro Tamaki, the party’s deputy Diet affairs chief. Renho, the popular Upper House member who is endorsed by many members of the departing party leadership under Okada, announced her candidacy in early August — shortly after Okada said he was not seeking re-election as party head. Maehara, known as one of the party’s leading conservative figures, joined the race later on, ending speculation — and reportedly hopes by some lawmakers close to the party leadership — that Renho might become the uncontested choice. Tamaki, with support from many younger-generation DP lawmakers, entered the competition on the very day the campaign kicked off after he managed to secure enough endorsements from his colleagues.

Voting for the new leader will be the party’s Diet members, candidates tapped for future Diet elections, local assembly members, rank-and-file members and registered supporters. But the biggest challenge for whoever wins the race will be turning the DP into a party that matters for the broader electorate — instead of just leading a party of dwindling Diet strength and declining voter support. The race should be a process for the party to choose a leader who is up to that task.

Some DP lawmakers may think that the worst is over for the party after its crushing defeat and fall from power in 2012. In the Upper House race in July, the party saw its pre-election strength of 43 seats fall to 32 — but its performance was still an improvement from the meager 17 seats its predecessor won in the last triennial race in 2013. Its campaign cooperation with other opposition forces — essentially the Japanese Communist Party — led to wins by opposition-backed candidates in 11 of the 32 crucial electoral districts in which one seat each was contested — compared with the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito bloc’s sweep of the races in 29 of 31 such constituencies three years ago.

That hardly changes the balance of power in the Diet, where the party continues to be dwarfed by Abe’s ruling alliance. Recent media surveys put popular support for the DP at barely a quarter of that for the LDP. It’s clear that voters do not view the DP as an alternative governing force — and the No. 1 opposition party’s failure to play that role has only solidified the ruling bloc’s unchallenged hold on power.

One indication of the party’s sluggish standing is the number of its registered rank-and-file members and supporters. Before the Democratic Party of Japan and another opposition force, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), merged in March and renamed themselves the Democratic Party, they had some 233,000 and 36,000 members and supporters, respectively. But the DP said last month that the number of its members and supporters as of early June stood at roughly 243,000 — smaller than its two predecessors combined. Those rank-and-file members and supporters will have 231 out of the 849 points to be contested in the race, while Diet members, local assembly members and candidates in future Diet elections will be allocated 294, 206 and 118 points, respectively.

Both Renho and Maehara have served in the party’s senior positions, including in the DPJ-led administrations. Maehara, one of the DPJ’s founding members, briefly led the party in 2005 and held key Cabinet posts when the DPJ was in power. Renho has served as deputy chief under Okada’s party leadership since 2015. In that sense, they share responsibility for the party’s downfall and its current state. They should also know what’s wrong with the party — and present their ideas on how to fix the problems.

One issue that’s often said to hold the key to the party’s fortunes is its campaign cooperation with the JCP — whether and how the party will pursue a joint campaign again in the next Lower House election. This involves the tough question of how they will coordinate their different policies, an issue that was cast aside in the Upper House race but can’t be ignored in a Lower House race since the choice of government is at stake. That should be discussed in the leadership race.

But campaign cooperation with the JCP must not be the only weapon the party has in its arsenal to once again become a contender capable of taking over the reins of government. The DP itself needs to rebuild its own policies and support base so that the party has enough strength on its own without relying on the votes of other parties’ supporters. Both the leadership candidates and other party members need to realize that as they choose their new leader.

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