Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was elected president of the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) on Sept. 1. This is the "last chance" for the party to regain public support, just as the new leader said. There are two main tasks Maehara faces.
First and foremost, Maehara should try his utmost to fill the vacuum that has been generated in the center of Japan's party politics as a result of the main opposition party's loss of public support.
Since the time of its predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the party has broadened its power base by trying to win support not just from liberals but also moderate conservatives. However, the party has tilted to the left since it was swept out of power, better to contrast with and confront the right-leaning government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The outcome of the July Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election has demonstrated that the DP has failed to serve as one of the two key political forces. Rather, Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First association) close to Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike grabbed that role, garnering votes from Tokyo residents disillusioned by the arrogance of the Abe-dominated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government.
The key point of contention in the latest DP leadership race was whether the party should maintain its election cooperation with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) to beat the LDP-Komeito coalition. The public had hoped that Maehara and rival candidate, former DP Secretary-General Yukio Edano, would debate the party's policy platform going forward. However, both candidates appear to have emphasized election tactics, focusing mainly on which forces their party should join hands with to survive the next House of Representatives election.
Under the slogan of "all for all," and in a bid to counter the LDP, Maehara said he will pursue a society in which all members will share equally the burden of dealing with Japan's declining birthrate and aging of the population.
Under Maehara's leadership, the main opposition should work out specific measures to achieve this goal to show the public how its policies differ from the Abe administration's "dynamic engagement of all citizens" and "work-style reform."
Another thing that Maehara should do is to learn from the LDP, which implements what is determined after discussions, even if there is a conflict within the party. This is the basic principle of governance that any political party must have. Furthermore, the LDP's fixation on staying in power is a major source of its strength.
Maehara recalled that the previous DPJ had lacked unity when it was in government from 2009 to 2012. The DPJ administration's meandering and subsequent internal party split over a consumption tax hike are still fresh in the public's memory, hindering the party's efforts to regain public confidence.
Its position as the largest opposition party, which had previously garnered a certain level of public support only by criticizing the government, is being threatened now. There are signs that some DP legislators are considering leaving with an eye to joining a new political party Tokyo Gov. Koike loyalists are considering founding.
The DP should take the opportunity of Maehara's election as leader to hold thorough discussions on constitutional revisions and phasing out nuclear power to establish and demonstrate its philosophy and firm policy platform to the people. The party should even be prepared to trigger a realignment of opposition forces in that process.
Maehara said he is determined to once again present his party to the public as a choice to run the government. The seriousness of his determination to do so is being tested.