Katsuya Okada voted in as new DPJ Chief

Katsuya Okada voted in as new DPJ Chief
Three candidates of presidential election of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (L-R) Katsuya Okada, Goshi Hosono and Akira Nagatsumashake join hands after their press conference at the party headquarters in Tokyo on January 7, 2015.

JAPAN'S main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has picked acting leader Katsuya Okada as its new chief in its bid to regain public trust and remake itself as a serious contender for power.

Mr Okada, 61, beat 43-year-old former DPJ secretary-general Goshi Hosono in a closely-fought election held yesterday at an extraordinary meeting of the party.

Mr Okada, who headed the party from 2004 to 2005, will serve as DPJ president until September 2017.

His election signals the DPJ's resolve to mount a credible challenge against the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in nationwide local elections this April as well as Upper House elections that must be held no later than July next year.

"Rebuilding the Democratic Party won't be easy," Mr Okada said yesterday. "What do we need to regain the trust of the Japanese people? We need to change."

A Trade Ministry official before he went into politics in 1990 and won a Lower House seat, Harvard-trained Mr Okada had served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister under a DPJ administration when the party was in power from 2009 to 2012.

The contest for the DPJ leadership had begun as a three-way fight.

But in the first round of voting held earlier yesterday - in which local assemblymen belonging to the DPJ as well as party members and supporters participated - none of the candidates was able to clinch a majority.

Mr Hosono however held a narrow lead over Mr Okada, and former health minister Akira Nagatsuma, 54, who had the least votes, dropped out of the running.

In the run-off vote conducted immediately afterwards, Mr Okada turned the tables on Mr Hosono, winning by 133 to 120 votes.

Unlike the first round of voting, the run-off was open only to the DPJ's lawmakers and one of the party's candidates for the next Upper House election.

After the DPJ was routed by the LDP in the December 2012 general elections, the party has not recovered from the setback.

In last December's snap general elections, the Democrats were unable to even field sufficient candidates against the LDP, prompting some commentators to call the DPJ a spent force.

Yesterday's presidential election, the first for the DPJ since December 2012, was to choose a replacement for Mr Banri Kaieda, who was forced to step down as party leader after he lost his Lower House seat last month.

The 11-day presidential campaign gave the DPJ a rare opportunity to bask in the media spotlight as its three candidates toured the country to appeal for the support of rank-and-file members and labour unions that form the core of the party's political base.

The election of Mr Okada, who is just one year older than Mr Abe, however suggests that the DPJ is not yet ready for a generational change in its leadership - one that a victory by the far younger Mr Hosono would have brought.

But Mr Hosono is not so easily written off. Though only in his early 40s, he has already won election to Parliament six times.

In the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Mr Hosono had served both as environment minister and also minister in charge of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. He has also long been seen as a potential future prime minister if the DPJ comes back to power.

wengkin@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on JAN 19, 2015.
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