Japan's battered opposition picks new leader

Japan's battered opposition picks new leader
Newly elected opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Katsuya Okada (R) is congratulated by former party leader Banri Kaieda (L) during the party's leadership election in Tokyo on January 18, 2015.

TOKYO - Japan's battle-scarred main opposition party on Sunday chose Katsuya Okada as its new leader as it tries to recover from a disastrous showing in December's general election and years of drift.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's crushing win last month - his second in two years - was believed by some commentators to be largely due to the absence of a credible alternative.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which governed for three years until December 2012, won just 73 seats in the 475-seat lower house where Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has 291 seats.

Okada, a 61-year-old Harvard-trained former deputy prime minister, will have his work cut out rebuilding public trust in the nominally centre-left party. Its three years in power to December 2012 were characterised by power struggles, policy flip-flops and diplomatic mis-steps.

"I want to rebuild the DPJ by returning to our starting point," Okada said in a speech before his fellow DPJ lawmakers voted Sunday.

"We are a party for consumers, ordinary citizens, taxpayers and working people," he said.

"The DPJ seeks to have a diverse, tolerant society which recognises various values... and we also have to be a reformist party." Okada pledged that the DPJ's economic policy would seek both growth and a smaller gap between rich and poor, saying: "Mr Abe has no ideas about a rich-poor gap and income redistribution." The party appeared to offer a fresh start for Japan when it was elected in 2009, interrupting more than half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

But its three-year stint was characterised by policy mis-steps and diplomatic mistakes that left voters disillusioned.

The party was also criticised for its handling of the nuclear crisis in the aftermath of the deadly March 2011 tsunami.

Its miserable performance in last month's general election cost then-leader Banri Kaieda his job.

Commentators warn that a directionless opposition party is not good for Japan's polity, and allows Abe almost unfettered rein.

They point to the record low 52.66 per cent turnout in the general election as proof of voters' disillusionment with a system of governance often criticised for pandering to vested interests.

Okada, who was the foreign minister in 2009-2010 and deputy prime minister in 2012, is noted for his knowledge of policy and strict self-discipline including a refusal to accept all gifts - even Valentine's Day chocolate.

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