Maehara’s task as new Democratic Party leader

Seiji Maehara, who defeated Yukio Edano in the Democratic Party’s latest leadership election, faces the daunting task of regaining voter support for the No. 1 opposition force — something no one has been able to do since its predecessor was swept out of power in 2012. To accomplish this herculean task, Maehara needs to set a clear direction for the party by uniting its ranks — which have been marked by internal divisions ever since the Democratic Party of Japan was briefly at the helm of government.

Maehara takes over from the outgoing chief Renho just as the party stands at a critical juncture. The leadership race was overshadowed by the moves of one DP lawmaker after another to leave the party in recent months — including former deputy party chief Goshi Hosono, who quit just as the party was about to choose a new leader — and their possible tie-up with a national party being contemplated by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. Speculation lingers that more DP lawmakers are waiting for a chance to leave the party to possibly join forces with the popular governor’s new party.

The DP’s dismal performance in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in early August, which forced Renho to quit as party chief after less than a year in the position, was preceded by the desertion of more than a dozen candidates tapped to run in the race on the party’s ticket. Popular support for the opposition leader remains sluggish in media polls, which has not gone up even as support for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has plunged — evidence that the DP is not seen by voters as a viable alternative to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition.

It won’t be an easy job to quickly reverse the situation. The DP under the new leader will face its first test at the polls in the Lower House by-elections to be held in Aomori, Niigata and Ehime constituencies on Oct. 22 to fill the vacancies left by the death of LDP incumbents.

However, lack of progress in the talks between the DP and the Japanese Communist Party for campaign coordination to avoid competing with each other clouds the prospect of an opposition upset in the by-elections.

Campaign cooperation with the JCP was one of the key issues that divided Maehara and Edano in the DP leadership race. The DP’s cooperation with other opposition forces, in particular the JCP, in the last Upper House election in July 2016 was a partial success — after agreeing on a single candidate in each of the crucial electoral districts, the opposition forces managed to put a dent in the ruling coalition’s sweep of the seats contested.

Talks with the JCP on similar campaign coordination for the by-elections, however, have stalled as the DP entered the leadership race with Renho’s resignation last month. During the party race, Edano advocated the cooperation with the JCP as an effective step to boost the DP’s prospect in elections, Maehara was more negative, saying that the DP cannot work with other parties with which it differs on basic ideas and policies.

Maehara and Edano also appeared to differ on how the DP should position itself vis-a-vis the new force being planned by Koike. While Maehara said he would make a judgment on Koike’s party when its policy ideas become known — leaving room for the DP partnering with Koike in the future — Edano took a more skeptical stance, noting that Koike’s planned party will likely end up supporting the LDP.

Many of the differences between Maehara and Edano during the race appeared to run along the party’s factional lines, with Maehara mainly supported by its conservative ranks, of whom he is a leading member, and Edano backed by the DP’s more liberal groups. The first job for the new DP chief would be to bridge the gap among its members that was exposed in the race and set a clear direction in which the party’s lawmakers can rally behind the new leader.

That would certainly not be easy — given what the party has experienced both when it was in power and as it struggled to rebuild support as leader of the opposition camp. But that seems to be the only way for the party to overcome its identity crisis. Either way the party is going, it will need to hold its own. Otherwise the DP may find itself drowned in yet another wave of political regrouping.