Simply finding a new leader of the Democratic Party to replace Renho, who announced her resignation as president this week, will not pull the No. 1 opposition party out of its current crisis. The DP’s ranks first need to realize the depth of the crisis and reflect on why the party is being deserted by voters — as shown in its dismal performance in elections as well as in media opinion polls — as they look for a way forward. They have to reassess and redefine the party’s basic direction, and in the process should not avert thorough discussions on potentially divisive issues. Otherwise, the party’s survival as a relevant political force may be in doubt, no matter who takes over from Renho.
Less than a year after she was elected party chief last September upon hopes that the widely known popular lawmaker would turn around the party’s fortunes, Renho said she was resigning from the position to take the blame for the DP’s dismal showing in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. The party’s performance in the race was indeed pathetic — it won only five of the assembly’s 127 seats. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party suffered a historic defeat, winning a mere 23 seats after holding 57 before the election, the race was swept by popular Gov. Yuriko Koike’s new Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First), which now controls a comfortable majority in the assembly along with its allies.
The election result was the clearest indication to date that an LDP loss does not translate into a DP gain — that the top opposition force party is not seen by voters as a viable alternative to the ruling party. Even as the Abe administration’s public approval ratings plunge to their lowest levels, support for the DP remains at negligible levels and far below that for the LDP.
Renho’s resignation as DP chief appears to have been inevitable. While she initially said she would stay at the party’s helm following the Tokyo race, DP lawmakers became increasingly vocal in blaming the party’s leadership led by Renho for the dismal performance. Earlier in the week, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was deemed a guardian of the party chief, tendered his resignation as party secretary-general to take the blame. But that did not quell calls for Renho to quit as well. Renho reportedly decided to resign after she failed to win cooperation from party elders in tapping a prospective candidate to take Noda’s position.
As she admitted in announcing her resignation, Renho lacked the leadership to rally the party behind her. Her flip-flop on the issue of her dual nationality — having been born to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother — that surfaced during the party presidency race last year cast doubts about her qualifications as leader. She was unable to take a firm stand on questions that divided the party’s lawmakers as well as the party’s largest organized supporter, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), ranging from the issue of constitutional revision being pushed for by the Abe administration and the LDP, the DP’s campaign cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party in national elections, as well as its policy on phasing out nuclear power.
The crisis stemming from Renho’s leadership of the party became evident in April when one of the leading conservative lawmakers quit the party, saying he could not accept the DP cooperating with the JCP in elections, and Goshi Hosono, who supported Renho in the party race last year, stepped down as deputy DP chief by criticizing the dearth of discussions within the party on the issue of amending the Constitution.
Disunity in the party’s ranks was a serious problem that hurt its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan, during its short-lived period at the helm of government, when divisions over policy and other issues and infighting among factional groups led to the party’s breakup and its crushing fall from power in the 2012 general election. After all, Renho was unable to fix the party’s disunity that continued to haunt it as the top opposition force. But it was a job that her predecessors were also unable to do. Her departure from the party’s leadership alone will not resolve the problem either.
In the Tokyo assembly race, the DP was deserted by many candidates initially tapped to run on its ticket. Speculation lingers that some DP lawmakers will leave the party if Koike’s new party makes its widely anticipated advance into national politics. Some lawmakers reportedly urged the DP leadership to break up or disband the party as they assessed the party’s results in the metropolitan assembly election. Whoever runs for and wins the DP presidency needs to take the party’s crisis seriously and forge a road forward.