The Democratic Party leadership election on Thursday ended with the widely anticipated victory of deputy chief Renho over two rival candidates as the controversy over her dual citizenship — which overshadowed the campaign itself — apparently had limited impact on the final outcome. However, the flip-flop in her explanation over the issue — she acknowledged just two days before the vote at the party convention that she had not renounced her Taiwanese citizenship despite insisting earlier that she did when she acquired Japanese nationality at the age of 17 — cast doubts over her qualifications as leader of a major party. The question now is whether the largest opposition force is ready to rally behind its new leader — which it will need to do if it is serious about taking on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition.
Renho’s sweep of 503 of the 849 points at stake in the votes by the party’s lawmakers, candidates tapped for future Diet elections, local assembly members, rank-and-file members and registered supporters may reflect their hopes that the 48-year-old newscaster-turned-politician will have enough popular appeal to turn around the party’s fortunes — after its failures at the helm of the government from 2009 to 2012, and its dismal performance as the leader of the opposition, which was dwarfed by Abe’s ruling alliance in Diet affairs and in key national elections, including the Upper House race in July.
However, whether the 12-year veteran of the Upper House has the political skills to unite the party, which has been marred by factional as well as policy divisions among its lawmakers both as the governing force and after its fall from power, remain to be seen. Renho was endorsed by key members of the departing party leadership led by Katsuya Okada, and won broad support among the party’s local assembly members and rank-and-file members. That may give her a strong footing within the party as she takes on her new job. But the controversy over her dual citizenship — which she retained even as she served key government posts in the past — may not only simmer within the party but will likely provide ammunition for other parties to attack her.
Renho is the first woman to lead the party since its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan, was founded in its original form in 1996. First elected to the Diet in 2004, she belongs to a new generation among the party’s leaders in that the Diet careers of all of her predecessors predated the DPJ’s creation. That may give a fresh look to Renho as party chief and the DP under her leadership, although she, as someone who held key Cabinet and party positions while the DPJ was in power, is among the lawmakers who share the responsibility for the party’s failures and where it stands now.
She had been a front-runner in the race ever since she announced her candidacy in early August — shortly after Okada said he was not seeking re-election as party chief. Media polls showed her well ahead of either Seiji Maehara or Yuichiro Tamaki. When suspicions were raised during the campaign that Renho, born to a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, may still hold dual citizenship, she initially brushed them aside, saying that she was “Japanese from the moment I was born” — only to correct the remark to explain that she obtained Japanese nationality in 1985 when she was 17. Although she stated that she renounced her Taiwanese citizenship at that point — and said she recently went through the procedure once again “just in case” — she disclosed on Tuesday she was informed the previous day that she had in fact not given up the citizenship of her father’s homeland.
Renho apologized for the confusion and inconsistencies in her account but said she believed she had done nothing illegal and blamed the mix-up on a careless mistake. Under the Nationality Law, a person of dual citizenship who chooses Japanese nationality is “duty-bound” to drop the other citizenship, but there are no provisions for penalties for failure to do so. She said her dual citizenship status will finally end once the paperwork she recently submitted is completed.
That may end the legal questions surrounding the issue, but the issue will likely continue to haunt her politically in various ways — including doubts that her flip-flop cast over her leadership qualifications and charges that the way she handled her own nationality was too careless as a politician. Several DP lawmakers who supported her rival candidates argued that the Thursday vote should have been postponed, because the votes by the party’s local assembly members, rank-and-file members and supporters had been collected before Renho acknowledged the dual citizenship.
Renho will have to prove that she can overcome these doubts and charges and rebuild the DP “as a party that can be chosen” by voters, as she put it after winning the race. Now that the party has chosen a new leader, another question is whether its lawmakers will unite behind her — which they can hardly afford not to do, given the mounting challenge the DP faces in rebuilding itself as a credible contender to the ruling coalition.
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