The Democratic Party is choosing a new leader just as the opposition force is in the throes of what threatens to become an existential crisis. Both contenders in the leadership race — former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano — as well as the DP members who will be voting Sept. 1 to pick their new leader, must take the party’s predicament seriously. They should consider the race as possibly the last chance for a turnaround of the party that, after its crushing fall from power in 2012, has not been able to regain the trust of voters as a viable alternative to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition.

Maehara and Edano are in the race to take over from outgoing chief Renho, who took the blame for the party’s dismal performance in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in July, at a time when it appears that the DP is increasingly being bypassed by voters even though it’s the opposition leader. Popular support for the DP didn’t rise even as the Abe administration suffered a plunge in public approval ratings. In the Tokyo race, it was the popular Gov. Yuriko Koike’s fledgling party that swept the assembly seats while Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party suffered devastating losses.

More than a dozen candidates initially tapped to run on the DP ticket in the Tokyo election deserted the party before the campaign began. In addition, among the DP’s Diet members, five have either left the party or tendered their resignations since April, including Goshi Hosono, a former deputy party chief who was once deemed a potential candidate for the party’s leadership. He quit the party in early August after saying the DP’s pursuit of an election campaign cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party runs counter to his political beliefs. There is speculation that more may follow in his footsteps — possibly to team up with a national party being contemplated by Koike.

Maehara and Edano — despite their differences in policy and background — have trodden similar paths in their political career. They were both first elected to the Lower House in the 1993 general election on the tickets of the now-defunct Japan New Party, whose leader Morihiro Hosokawa went on to lead a coalition government that briefly ousted the LDP from power. They both took part in the founding of the original Democratic Party of Japan in 1996. They both led the party in its quest to challenge the LDP’s rule, and held key positions in the DPJ-led government from 2009 to 2012, which was marred by constant infighting and an eventual breakup — a legacy that still haunts the party, which changed its name through a merger with another opposition force last year.

Still, the two senior DP lawmakers differ on many of the crucial issues that the party faces — differences that appear to cut across the party’s factional lines. Maehara, a leading figure among the party’s conservative ranks, opposes the DP’s campaign tie-up with the JCP. He says the DP should not cooperate with a party with which it is not in agreement over policies or political ideals, given that a Lower House election is meant to choose the party in government. Edano, backed by the DP’s more liberal groups, favors cooperation with the JCP, noting that it is the responsibility of the party leadership to do all it can to have as many candidates as possible win the election.

While Edano makes his opposition clear to amending war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Maehara says the DP “as a party that aims to win government power” should actively discuss matters concerning the Constitution, noting that merely opposing a constitutional amendment under the Abe administration “will not win people’s understanding.”

It may be hard to bridge many of these differences. Still, merely shelving them for the sake of appearance of party unity will not solve the DP’s fundamental woes. Both candidates as well as their supporters should put their differences to thorough discussions by DP members in the leadership race — and set a clear direction in which the party’s lawmakers should rally behind their new leader.

Simply choosing a new party chief without resolving the party’s internal differences will not dispel the seeds of more discord and possible departures of more lawmakers, which would only deepen people’ distrust of the party as a credible force. The DP leadership race comes at a critical juncture for the party.

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