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Ailing Japan opposition picks Maehara as new leader

Conservative former foreign minister to take on Abe at next election

Seiji Maehara   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's largest opposition party on Friday picked former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara as its new leader. 

The traditionally center-left Democratic Party will now seek to rebuild itself into a credible opposition group capable of challenging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party in national elections due by the end of 2018.  

At an extraordinary party convention in Tokyo, conservative Maehara, 55, defeated liberal rival Yukio Edano, 53, the party's former secretary-general and the man widely remembered as the public face of government during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In his victory speech, Maehara said the party must change the political situation in Japan, where people see the LDP as the "only credible choice" to lead the country. "I will serve the Japanese people by providing an alternative," he said.

Based on the electoral college of the party's diet members, local assembly officials and supporters nationwide, Maehara defeated Edano by 502 points to 332.

Friday's vote was triggered by the resignation of former leader Renho -- the first woman to lead the opposition -- after the party was wiped out by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's party in the Japanese capital's assembly elections in July.

Maehara, a Kyoto native currently in his eighth term in the lower house, now faces the task of reviving a party that desperately lacks public support.

The Democratic Party has suffered immensely from the negative public image of its time in government and constant infighting.

The party lost in a landslide to the LDP in 2012 after three years in government, and has struggled to form a distinct identity and recover ever since. Despite the Abe administration itself fairing badly in opinion polls, support for the opposition remains low.

Looking ahead, Maehara said that the party faces "an extremely challenging beginning of the voyage," but the new leader called on his supporters to join forces so that "people will look back on this day as a turning point in [Japanese] politics."

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